The Sunflowers are Mine: A Book Review

The Sunflowers are Mine by Martin Bailey

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Martin Bailey is an arts journalist and a specialist on Van Gogh. He has written multiple books about the artist and has curated several exhibitions on Van Gogh. He also writes a blog called Adventure with Van Gogh.

 In this book, Martin chronicles Vincent Van Gogh’s life from his arrival in Paris in 1886 until July 29, 1890 in Auvers- sur- Oise and the subsequent development of his art and its impact on the world. The author combines scholarship, the artist’s letters to Theo, and to other artists to set the scene that culminated in one of the greatest works of art the world has known. 

Part one of the book begins with Van Gogh’s arrival in Paris. When in Paris, Van Gogh learned about the Impressionists  and even met several, some of whom would become longtime friends. During this period his palette changed considerably, setting the stage for things to come.

The sunflowers were a series of four paintings completed in one week of August 1888. The book reveals Van Gogh’s motivation for painting the series , but also reveals the wider scope of Van Gogh’s hopes for his art, the tumultuous few months of Gauguin’s visit and the effect it had on Van Gogh, all the while, Theo sending materials and financial support.

We learn of how the yellow house became  a foundation for Van Gogh to launch his enterprise of a studio in the south. A place where a group of artists could work and live with mutual support. Martin points out the painstaking care Van Gogh took to furnish the house and to decorate it. The decoration was to be a series of sunflower still life paintings to hang in Gauguin’s bedroom. Imagine!

12 sunflowers van gogh
Sunflowers Vincent Van Gogh

“ The room… will have a decoration of large yellow sunflowers on it’s white washed walls. Opening the window in the morning, you see the greenery in the gardens and the rising sun and the entrance to town. But you’ll see these big paintings of bouquets of 12, 14 sunflowers stuffed into this tiny little boudoir with a pretty bed and everything elegant. It will not be commonplace.”
Van Gogh

Gauguin’s reaction to the room was cool, but a few weeks later he did favorably compare the sunflowers to a painting Monet had done.

The series of sunflowers completed during that late August week in 1888 culminated in the two paintings used to decorate the room which was also furnished with a few other paintings by VanGogh. The series consisted of 3 sunflowers, 6 sunflowers, 14 sunflowers and 15 sunflowers. Why did he paint a series? It seems he was working on color combinations and compositional strategies and the result was an entirely new way of presenting floral still life, with vibrant contrasts of complementary colors and bold compositions. What effect did these paintings have on the world of art and future artists?

Perhaps Gauguin was a bit intimidated!

The second part of the book chronicles the fate of each of the sunflower paintings in the series and a few copies Van Gogh made as well. He made two copies of 15 sunflowers, only one signed and a signed copy of 14 sunflowers. 

During the first decade after Van Gogh’s death, several memorial exhibitions of his work were held, these were attended mainly by the avant-garde and the public remained largely unaware of Van Gogh and his work. This would begin to change during the first decade of the new century as Emile Bernard, a friend of Van Gogh’s and Jo Bonger, Theo’s widow , would publish letters written by Van Gogh.

 The story of 14 sunflowers takes us to Germany and the collector Hugo Von Tschudi, director of Germany’s Nationalgalerie. He wanted the work for the gallery, but the Kaiser was no fan. Subsequently, Tschudi built his private collection with even more paintings by Van Gogh. By the time of his death in 1911, he held the most important collection of Van Goghs outside of France and the Netherlands. From here it is a story of war, greed and forgery as the 14 sunflowers weather the horrors of the second world war and eventually finds its way back to a place of honor.

The story of the 15 sunflowers takes us to London and a fascinating account of how one curator, Harold Ede, from the Millbank ( now the Tate) went to visit Jo Bonger in Amsterdam. Her apartment was lined with Van Gogh paintings, with hundreds more stacked away, but the one that most impressed Ede was 15 sunflowers. Now we follow the trail of museum acquisition, conservation efforts, wartime safekeeping and the birth of England’s first museum of modern art.

The chronicle continues for the remaining paintings in the series as Van Gogh’s 6 sunflowers became a prized and beloved acquisition rarely to be seen in public again and 3 sunflowers travels around the world. 

Sunflowers detail Vincent Van Gogh

Martin Bailey has a knack for uncovering little known facts about the paintings which makes the reading all the more intriguing. For readers familiar with Van Gogh’s life, the first part of the book will add a sense of Van Gogh’s motivation and inspiration, as well as his everyday concerns and hopes. The second part of the book is a tale of the dynamics of wealth, economies, war and the birth of modern art. A must read book for fans of Van Gogh and anyone interested in the workings of the art world.

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