How Van Gogh’s Sunflowers came into bloom

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At first nobody wanted them. Van Gogh painted four images of sunflowers in a pot, and then three copies that depart in many details from the originals. Together, they amount to an iconic body of work, representative of his creative powers at their height. Yet the first time one was exhibited in his lifetime it caused uproar.

vincent and theo

Vincent (left) and Theo (right)

Having been invited to show work alongside Les Vingt, an avant-garde group of 20 artists in Brussels, in January 1890, Van Gogh consulted his brother Theo as to what he should send. Theo recommended the sunflowers and explained why. “I’ve put one of the sunflowers on the mantelpiece in our dining room. It has the effect of a piece of fabric embroidered with satin and gold, it’s magnificent.” But such richness and beauty, achieved by means of Van Gogh’s stark simplicity and strong colour, was not apparent to others. The artist Henry de Groux threatened to remove his own work from the 1890 exhibition if he found it in the same room as “the laughable pot of sunflowers by Mr Vincent”. As Van Gogh’s artist friends Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac were present when this was said, the evening ended in chaos, and a fight was only narrowly avoided. The next morning, De Groux resigned. To the critic of Le Journal de Charleroi, it was understandable: this artist had been “very justly exasperated” by Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Edited from guardian and Quigley’s Cabinet

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