In August, 1888 Vincent van Gogh began painting a series of works which, as Dr. Jan Hulsker suggests “perhaps more than any other of his paintings, have made him known throughout the world. They are often the only works with which he is identified.“1 This series is, of course, the sunflowers.
Van Gogh envisioned his sunflower works as a series and worked diligently on them in anticipation of the arrival in Arles of his friend, Paul Gauguin. In a letter to Emile Bernard written around 21 August 1888 Vincent wrote: “I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of Sunflowers. A decoration in which harsh or broken yellows will burst against various blue backgrounds, from the palest Veronese to royal blue, framed with thin laths painted in orange lead. Sorts of effects of stained-glass windows of a Gothic church.“
Vincent eventually planned a dozen sunflower works to be hung in the Yellow House which he and Gauguin would use for a studio. “I’d like to do a decoration for the studio. Nothing but large Sunflowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go.“ (666). Unfortunately, Vincent's race against the changing seasons was unsuccessful and he was only able to complete four sunflower works in August, 1888.
Without question, the most valuable resource with regards to insights into the development and execution of Van Gogh's works are his letters to his brother, Theo, and others. In his typically detailed and precise manner, Van Gogh describes the origin of the first three works in this series: I have 3 canvases on the go, 1) 3 large flowers in a green vase, light background (no. 15 canvas), 2) 3 flowers, one flower that’s gone to seed and lost its petals and a bud on a royal blue background (no. 25 canvas), 3) twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (no. 30 canvas). So the last one is light on light, and will be the best, I hope.“ (666). A few days later Vincent writes in Letter 668: “I’m now on the fourth painting of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bouquet of 14 flowers and is on a yellow background.