Van Gogh's Sunflowers Reunited at the National Gallery

Posted: March 3, 2014


“It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look” wrote Van Gogh about the Sunflowers in a letter to his brother Theo in 1889. One of his best-known works, a bunch of these flowers in a vase is a symbol of the Dutch painter’s artistry recognisable worldwide.

Being part of the permanent collection in the National Gallery, the masterpiece is now accompanied by another version from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Separated for 65 years, the Sunflowers are now reunited again. Visitors have this exclusive opportunity to see them for free, until 27th April.

Painted in a thrill of anticipation for the arrival of his beloved friend Paul Gauguin, the sunflowers, symbol of happiness, were paradoxically a prelude to Vincent’s personal tragedy. Although the time spent in his little Yellow House in Arles in the south of France was a period relatively calm and joyful, what happened after Gauguin’s visit was the beginning of an end.

After approximately two months together, having realised that Paul was planning to leave, in the room with the Sunflowers on the wall Vincent cut off his ear. Feeling heartbroken, abandoned and betrayed, he bandaged the wound and gave the ear wrapped in paper to a prostitute from the brothel he used to visit with Gauguin. Paul left Arles shortly after this incident and never saw Van Gogh again – from their profound friendship remained only a series of iconic paintings.

However, the Sunflowers were meant to decorate Gauguin’s room not only for aesthetic reasons. In Dutch literature the sunflower is a symbol of loyalty and devotion, an expression of Vincent’s feelings for his friend.

The jarring fact is that the painting from the National Gallery was finished before Gauguin’s arrival in October 1888 during the period of mental stability, but the piece from Amsterdam was painted a few months later, in January 1889, when, fragile and suffering from hallucinations, Vincent returned from the hospital, desperately holding to the remains of his sanity.  And now both are displayed together, so visitors can reflect on whether the dramatic changes in the painter’s life are noticeable in his works.

What is more, London is not an accidental place for such a reunion. Not everyone knows that twenty year old Vincent spent some time here working for an art dealing company in their branch in Southampton Street, near the Strand. His temporary home was in Brixton, 87 Hackford Road.

Van Gogh's house in Brixton

“I now have a room such as I always longed for...I live with a very amusing family” wrote Van Gogh to Theo from the white-painted early Victorian house. Dining everyday with his landlady and their daughter, Vincent fell in love with the young Eugenie Loyer. Although stricken by torrid feelings toward her, he did nothing – not a single step to show her his interest.

In order to understand Van Gogh’s twisted personality and learn more about his turbulent life, you should definitely start with a visit to the National Gallery where the works can be admired in conjunction and framed within the artist’s personal narrative.

You can see the reunited sunflowers paintings at the National Gallery now