From the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London:
This is one of four paintings of sunflowers dating from August and September 1888. Van Gogh intended to decorate Gauguin's room with these paintings in the so-called Yellow House that he rented in Arles in the South of France. He and Gauguin worked there together between October and December 1888.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in August 1888, 'I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when you know that what I'm at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly. I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers ... it gives a singular effect.'
The dying flowers are built up with thick brushstrokes (impasto). The impasto evokes the texture of the seed-heads. Van Gogh produced a replica of this painting in January 1889, and perhaps another one later in the year. The various versions and replicas remain much debated among Van Gogh scholars.
To Emile Bernard. Paris, about December 1887.
My dear old Bernard,
I feel the need to beg your pardon for leaving you so abruptly the other day. Which I therefore do herewith, without delay. I recommend that you read Tolstoy’s Les Légendes Russes, and I’ll also let you have the article on E. Delacroix that I’ve spoken to you about.
I, for my part, did go to Guillaumin’s anyway, but in the evening, and I thought that perhaps you didn’t know his address, which is 13 quai d’Anjou. I believe that, as a man, Guillaumin has sounder ideas than the others, and that if we were all like him we’d produce more good things and would have less time and inclination to be at each other’s throats. I persist in believing that — not because I gave you a piece of my mind but because it will become your own conviction — I persist in believing that you’ll realize that in the studios not only does one not learn very much as far as painting goes, but not much that’s good in terms of savoir vivre, either. And that one finds oneself obliged to learn to live, as one does to paint, without resorting to the old tricks and trompe l’oeil of schemers.
I don’t think your portrait of yourself will be your last, or your best — although all in all it’s frightfully you.
Look here — briefly, what I was trying to explain to you the other day comes down to this. In order to avoid generalities, let me take an example from life.
If you’ve fallen out with a painter, with Signac, for example, and if as a result you say: if Signac exhibits where I exhibit, I’ll withdraw my canvases — and if you run him down, then it seems to me that you’re not behaving as well as you could behave.
Because it’s better to take a long look at it before judging so categorically, and to reflect, reflection making us see in ourselves, when there’s a falling out, as many faults on our own side as in our adversary, and in him as many justifications as we might desire for ourselves.
If, therefore, you’ve already considered that Signac and the others who are doing pointillism often make very beautiful things with it — Instead of running those things down, one should respect them and speak of them sympathetically, especially when there’s a falling out.
Otherwise one becomes a narrow sectarian oneself, and the equivalent of those who think nothing of others and believe themselves to be the only righteous ones.
This extends even to the academic painters, because take, for example, a painting by Fantin-Latour — and above all his entire oeuvre. Well then — there’s someone who hasn’t rebelled, and does that prevent him, that indefinable calm and righteousness that he has, from being one of the most independent characters in existence?
I also wanted to say a word to you about the military service that you’ll be required to do. You must absolutely see to that now.
Directly, in order to inform yourself properly about what one can do in such an event; first to retain the right to work, to be able to choose a garrison, &c. But indirectly, by taking care of your health. You mustn’t arrive there too anaemic or too agitated if you want to emerge from it stronger.
I don’t see it as a very great misfortune for you that you have to join the army, but as a very grave ordeal, from which, if you emerge from it, you’ll emerge a very great artist. Until then, do all you can to build yourself up, because you’ll need quite a bit of spirit. If you work hard that year, I believe that you may well succeed in having a fair stock of canvases, some of which we’ll try to sell for you, knowing that you’ll need pocket money to pay for models.
I’ll gladly do all I can to make a success of what was started in the dining-room, but I believe that the first condition for success is to put aside petty jealousies; it’s only unity that makes strength. It’s well worth sacrificing selfishness, the ‘each man for himself’, in the common interest.
I shake your hand firmly.