Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Real or Imagined?

In a new book, art historian Martin Bailey writes that Van Gogh’s famous, post-impressionist sunflower paintings must have been too heavy for their vase. Bailey argues that under the weight of the flowers the vase would tip and fall over. But perhaps Bailey missed an important aspect of post-impressionism, namely to present an audience something beyond what can be observed in the real world. Post-impressionism thickens reality so that the work of art create a stronger emotional response.

In other words, like the vase, Van Gogh’s sunflowers may never have been real. The flowers were never really there, set in a vase to be observed by Van Gogh. Instead, the Dutch painter produced them from his own, vivid imagination. The point of post-impressionism is to deviate from impressionist loyalty to an observation and allow for a degree of abstraction.

If we have a look at another one of Van Gogh’s famous paintings, the Potatoe Eaters, we can see the farmers in the painting have distorted faces. Were they real people? In fact, Van Gogh had studied each of the farmers individually, and only then painted them sitting at the table together, by sourcing the farmers from his imagination, and thus allowing for deliberate distortion. In other words, the scene at the table had never been real. Van Gogh has mastered the art of fabricating a partial reality. Real people set in an imaginary scene.

Likewise, his sunflowers do not accurately represent reality: he painted them from observing his memory, not from observing reality. Real sunflowers set in an imaginary vase. As a matter of fact, Van Gogh and roommate Paul Gauguin had had an argument about whether paintings should either resemble reality or the artist’s imagination. The idea of falsifying reality upset Gauguin so much, that according to a new explanation of why Van Gogh cut off his ear, Gaugain, who was a fencer, accidentally, cut off Van Gogh’s ear with a fencing blade.

History will never change, but our understanding of history always will.

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