Van Gogh’s Sunflowers
Thursday, 06 February 2014

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

For the first time in 65 years, two of Van Gogh’s golden stars illuminate the same room

Written by Sam Taylor
Sam-Taylor-NEW-176When McDonald’s opened its first shop in Russia in 1990, people queued for four days for their taste of beefy pleasure. It’s worth keeping this in mind if you are planning to pop along to Room 46 at the National Gallery to see the two Van Gogh Sunflower paintings currently hanging side by side for the first time in 65 years.

You won’t need to cancel the milk but, with a wait three-hours long, it’s worth taking a flask and some thermals.

As floral still lifes go, they don’t get much more famous than this. The paintings were produced six months apart and as X-rays of the canvases in the exhibition show, Van Gogh’s approach to both was quite different. The first, painted in August 1888, was bought by the National Gallery directly from the artist’s family in 1924 and has remained one of the stars of its permanent collection ever since. Postcards of it outsell all other images in the gift shop.

Van Gogh painted it in the baking South of France sunshine, working from dawn to dusk, producing four pictures, of which our national gem is always considered the best. He originally painted it to hang in his rented ‘Yellow House’ in Arles to decorate the guest bedroom walls for his friend and mentor Paul Gauguin: ‘I want him to see nothing but large sunflowers on first waking,’ he wrote to his brother Theo. The version hanging alongside it is on loan from the newly refurbished Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and was painted the following January, after Van Gogh had suffered a breakdown and cut off his ear lobe (tales of a full ear removal are often exaggerated). He had promised it to Gauguin as a present but after Van Gogh attacked him, he left, not pausing to pack.

When things had calmed down, Gauguin wrote and asked if he might still have the picture but Van Gogh was loath to part with it (he was no longer mad), and instead made a copy using tracing paper. The result is a much more vibrant, vivid, image. Together, they cast a magical amber glow, an artistic altarpiece for those who do manage to get to the top of the queue.


For those with less patience, the rooms next door housing the 18th- to 20th-century paintings are now virtually empty and offer the chance for a leisurely look at Van Gogh’s other 1899 masterpiece, A Wheatfield, With Cypresses. You choose. 

Until 27 April at the National Gallery, London WC2. Admission free: 020-7747 2885,


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