Theodor Adorno famously declared that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” One might just as well observe that to paint sunflowers after Van Gogh is arrogant. But how can anyone fascinated by colour not attempt this most charismatic of blossoms? For Van Gogh himself, they invited an almost scientific investigation of chromatic possibility using newly-invented yellow pigments. He made two series of sunflower paintings; the first, in Paris in 1887, consisted of five studies of the flowers lying on the ground; the second series of seven, painted in Arles in 1888, depicted them standing upright in a vase. They remain among his most beloved and iconic works.
In a letter he sent from Arles to fellow artist Arnold Hendrik Koning (1860-1945) on 22 January 1889, Van Gogh notes that he had recently painted “two flower-pieces with nothing but Sunflowers in a yellow earthenware pot. Painted with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else.” In a letter to his brother Theo, dated 11 April 1888, he had specified that the three chrome yellows are “orange, yellow and lemon.” These happen to be the same colours I used, instinctively, in my own painting, but I also added a little Cadmium red and even Alizarin crimson. I was not trying to evoke Van Gogh but rather to get out from under his looming shadow. Still, a sunflower is a sunflower, and must therefore be sunny! (As for “Veronese” green, that is usually called “Viridian”; I used a similar pigment—Phthalo green, blue shade—sometimes tinting it with lemon yellow, other times with white).
The two sunflower paintings mentioned above were hung in the room of Paul Gauguin, whom Van Gogh had invited to stay with him at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin admired them and asked for one as a gift, but Van Gogh was reluctant to part with it. Of the Arles sunflower paintings, four reside in museums in Amsterdam, London, Munich, and Philadelphia, one is privately owned, and one was destroyed by bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. The artist was unable to sell any of the canvases during his lifetime, though he was very proud of them, telling Theo he hoped to sell “Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” for 500 francs, then worth about $125. That same painting was sold to a Japanese businessman for nearly 40 million dollars in 1987; he donated it to the Seiji Togo Yasuda Memorial Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. This was more than triple the contemporary record for an auctioned painting, and seen by many as an ironic commentary on the painter’s lack of commercial success during his brief life.
What I didn’t quote from Van Gogh’s letter to Koning is that he had just been released from hospital, where he had been treated for an unspecified condition. As he described it, it was an “attack of brain or some other fever that had already pretty much passed off. And as regards the causes and effects of the illness in question, we’ll do best to leave it to possible discussions by the Dutch catechists as to whether or not I have been or still am mad, fancy myself mad, or regarded as mad in a flight of fancy consisting only of sculpture.” That last bit intrigues me. What does it mean for a painter to describe his attacks of delusion as “a flight of fancy consisting only of sculpture”? Well, for one thing, it means the absence of colour, for all the sculpture popular in Van Gogh’s day was made of bronze or marble, its claims to realism as limited by its lack of chroma as paintings were by the absence of three dimensions. In the visual arts back then, you had two main options: to evoke the material world in space without colour or to imitate its colour without the use of space.
Either attempt might well be seen, by those around you, as a form of madness.
The other great artist who has left his imprint on how we see sunflowers is William Blake, who lived a century before Van Gogh. Blake is best known as a poet although he was also an accomplished printmaker, working both in relief etching and intaglio engraving. Like the Dutchman, the Englishman was largely unrecognized in his lifetime but is now celebrated as a genius. Also like Van Gogh, in his own day he was often regarded as a madman, having had his first vision of God at the age of four, and insisting thereafter that all people would be able to experience such revelations if only their imaginations were not repressed by conformity to social convention. Blake was extremely devout and politically radical, both of which Van Gogh had been in his early life (he was the son of a minister and spent two years as a pastor himself), before abandoning the church for the religion of art. Van Gogh sought to convey the sanctity of the world and the need for compassion through his art just as Blake did, but by depicting material reality as he saw it, not by creating an alternate mythology of the world.
This is to say that Blake’s vision of sunflowers was deliberately symbolic rather than representational. Thus he made the flower into a symbol of mortality in his Songs of Experience. Here is the poem.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
I have never been able to relate to this poem, as “pale virgins” and “pining youth” fail to evoke the exuberance and stalwart endurance of that tallest of flowers. Far from being “weary of time” and yearning to live in Eden, the sunflower embodies an alternative chronology, one based on an acceptance of the natural order. Yes, like all creatures, it will die, but it will be resurrected in the springtime, right here on earth, not in some alternate “sweet golden clime / Where the travellers journey is done”. Still, the temptation to use the sunflower as some kind of metaphor for human aspiration may be irresistible for folks not content with the material world, given the flower’s heliotropism. Before blooming, most sunflower plants turn towards the sun in order to expedite photosynthesis. This continues for a short time after the plant blooms, perhaps to attract pollinators who prefer snuggling into warm flowers. Mature sunflowers stop following the sun and stand still, facing east (which reminds me of old Jewish men at prayer – an image which Blake might have enjoyed).
Not being a botanist, Blake failed to recognize another potent symbolism inherent in the sunflower. It is a community rather than a single being! That is to say that each sunflower head consists of 1000 to 2000 ray florets (the golden petals) and disc florets (tiny flowers inside the ray florets which contain both male and female sex organs). This ability to self-pollinate places the sunflower in the category of “perfect” flowers, meaning it can produce identical offspring. It is interesting to imagine what Blake might have written had he been aware of these facts.
Despite both Van Gogh’s and Blake’s monopoly on their imagery, sunflowers were not brought to Europe until the 16th century. The genus Helianthus belongs to the daisy family, Asteraceae, and comprises about seventy species, all but three of which are native to North and Central America, the last three located in South America. Humans have been cultivating sunflowers since 3000 BCE, using their seeds to make flour, eating their sprouts, and prescribing the plant as a medicinal remedy for chest pain or snakebite. The Russians were the first to cultivate sunflowers for oilseed, which has since become a worldwide industry. The oil is widely used for cooking. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to heal wounds and relieve gastric upset.
Sunflowers are golden in so many ways!
Here’s another: Alan Turing—best known for helping crack the Enigma Code during World War II, and often credited with inventing the modern computer and the science of artificial intelligence—noticed that the Fibonacci sequence often occurred in the spiralling seed heads of sunflowers. The sequence is found by adding the previous two numbers of the sequence together (it looks like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on, ad infinitum). He began studying sunflowers to understand more about how the sequence, also known as the “golden ratio”, was involved in plant growth. During Turing’s centenary in 2012, Manchester University invited citizen-scientists to plant thousands of sunflowers and complete Turing’s study. Consequently, they discovered that other patterns besides the Fibonacci sequence occur in sunflowers, and they are now trying to understand the mathematical models behind those variants.
Perhaps this unexpected nonconformity may be seen as a rebuke by nature to systems that try to confine it to approved epistemological models. Or as Blake put it, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” I hold this aphorism in higher regard than I do his sunflower poem because sweeping statements, whether about nature or humanity, hold little attraction for me. Respecting the sweet particulars of the world is what I try to do with both image and text.
Susan Glickman used to be an English professor, then a creative writing instructor at both Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, and now works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven volumes of poetry, most recently What We Carry (2019), seven novels, most recently The Discovery of Flight (2018), and one book of literary criticism, The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (1998).
WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly