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Van Gogh and the Sunflowers

Summer exhibition on the origins, research and conservation of a world-famous painting.


Sunflowers (1889), one of Vincent van Gogh’s best-known paintings, is the centrepiece of the summer exhibition Van Gogh and the Sunflowers. A great deal of study has been devoted to this masterpiece from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection in recent years. How did the painting come about, what significance did this flower have for Van Gogh and what did he hope to achieve with his Sunflowers?

The exhibition presents the results of the recent technical research carried out on the painting, which Van Gogh himself considered to be among the best things he ever did. How did he approach the work, how has it been affected by the discolouration of certain pigments, and what do we now know about the painting’s restoration history and current condition? Painted reconstructions have been created for the exhibition to give an impression of the colours as they originally looked. The public will also have a first opportunity to see the back of the masterpiece, including the wooden strip that Van Gogh himself added to create more space for the sunflowers.

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers will be open daily between 21 June and 1 September, from 9 am to 7 pm.

From first flower still life to world-famous Sunflowers

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers presents the particular circumstances in which the painting was done and the sunflower’s significance to Van Gogh. It was during his time in Paris that he first chose the sunflower as a subject, in both landscapes and still lifes. Having moved to the southern French town of Arles, he then painted his celebrated vases of sunflowers, which came to be associated with his friendship with Paul Gauguin. The painting now in the Van Gogh Museum’s collection was originally intended for Gauguin, who lived with Van Gogh in Arles for two months and made a portrait of him as a painter of sunflowers.

Van Gogh considered the Sunflowers paintings to be among his best works. He realized that he had achieved something extraordinary: ‘to be sufficiently heated up to melt those golds and those flower tones, not just anybody can do that, it takes an individual’s whole and entire energy and attention.’ It was not only Gauguin who was impressed by the works, Vincent’s brother Theo and other artists and critics also found them magnificent. It did not take long after Van Gogh’s early death for them to assume the status of masterpieces.

Back of the painting with added strip to be seen for the first time

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers will include twenty-three works, virtually all from the Van Gogh Museum’s own collection: in addition to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, there are masterpieces like The Yellow House (1888) and Paul Gauguin’s Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (1888), as well as a number of drawings by Van Gogh that are rarely shown because of their fragility and sensitivity to light. There are also two loans: Van Gogh’s painting Zinnias in a Maiolica Jug (1888), from a private collection, which has not previously been exhibited in the Netherlands, and Woman in Profile before Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ (1916-1920) by Isaac Israëls from the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle.

Exceptionally, the back of the world-famous Sunflowers is being shown for the first time so that visitors can see the wooden strip with the original nails that Van Gogh himself added at the top of the canvas. He probably realized during the painting process that the uppermost sunflowers were too close to the edge, so he attached the narrow strip at the top to give the bouquet more space.

Condition fragile but stable

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers presents for the first time the results of the extensive technical research performed on the materials used for this masterpiece. The study was carried out by an international team of specialists from the universities of Antwerp, Perugia and Torún (Poland) and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, headed by former senior conservator Ella Hendriks (now Professor of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage at the University of Amsterdam).

Sunflowers has been examined using the latest research techniques, which meant the painting no longer had to be transported, as the mobile equipment could be brought to it. In the course of the research, as much information as possible was gathered regarding the canvas, the ground and paint layers and the previous restorations that the work has undergone. The aim was to discover which materials Van Gogh used, what condition the painting is in, whether conservation treatment was needed and possible and what can be done to preserve the work – 130 years after it was completed – as effectively as possible for the future.

At the same time, the National Gallery in London performed similar research on their version of Sunflowers, which was painted five months earlier and served as the model for the one in the Van Gogh Museum.

One important conclusion is that the ground and paint layers of the Van Gogh Museum’s Sunflowers are stable, but extremely sensitive to vibration and to variations in humidity and temperature. It is therefore important that the painting be moved as little as possible and that it should hang in a stable climate. For this reason, the museum recently decided not to allow Sunflowers to travel in future.

Discolouration and reconstructions

The research provided detailed knowledge of the colours and blends of colours that Van Gogh used and the natural ageing process of the paint. The original colour nuances have been partially lost due to the effects of discolouration. We now know that the changes in colour in Sunflowers have been caused by the fading of a particular type of red paint (geranium lake) and the darkening of a particular type of yellow paint (chrome yellow).

We also know more about the various restorations carried out on the work and their consequences. The subsequently applied layers of varnish, for example, have also affected the canvas’s appearance. Painted reconstructions have been created for the exhibition to give an impression of the colours as they originally looked. The artist Charlotte Caspers drew on the findings of the research to replicate two details from Sunflowers.

Restoration: varnish and retouches

Sunflowers underwent minor conservation treatment at the beginning of the year based on the findings of the research. The varnish layers are dirty and yellowed but cannot be removed as they have merged with the paint in certain places. The layer of wax applied locally to the varnish layers in the late 1990s, which had taken on a matt, whitish effect over time, was removed during the recent treatment. The discoloured retouches added during an earlier restoration were also examined. These could not be removed as they were located beneath the varnish layer and so new retouches were made on top of the old ones.

Symposium, scholarly publication and catalogue

A symposium is being held at the Van Gogh Museum on Friday 21 June, at which members of the international research team will present their findings. The event also sees the launch of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Illuminated: Art Meets Science – a scholarly publication in which an international team of scientists, conservators and art historians will unveil the results of several years of research using the latest techniques into the sunflowers paintings in the Van Gogh Museum and the National Gallery in London. The book is published by Amsterdam University Press, price € 55.

The exhibition catalogue presents the research results to a wider public, and also situates the Van Gogh Museum’s Sunflowers in the context of the artist’s oeuvre and his series of sunflower still lifes. Van Gogh and the Sunflowers: A Masterpiece Examined has been written by Nienke Bakker and Ella Hendriks and appears in Dutch and English versions, price € 14.95.

Destroyed by fire (Still life: Vase with Five Sunflowers)

Destroyed by Fire (Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers) (2015) by the American artist Matthew Day Jackson will be on display throughout the exhibition on the third floor of the museum, in the permanent collection. Day Jackson based the work on a version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that was owned by a Japanese collector and was lost during the US bombardment of Osaka in 1945.

Destroyed by fire (Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers) is part of a series, for which Day Jackson chose iconic works of art lost during the Second World War and recreated them in wood before burning them. The black colour of the burned wood refers simultaneously to a sense of mourning and loss for the vanished work.

The exhibition Van Gogh and the Sunflowers has been designed by Pièce Montée and has been made possible by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the BankGiro Loterij, Van Lanschot, Takii Seed and The Sunflower Collective.

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