Stems Fit For Van Gogh’s Vase

Still Life: Vase with 15 sunflowers ~ Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Everyone likes to spruce up their home before special friends come to visit, and it seems Vincent van Gogh was no exception.

Anticipating the arrival in Arles of his friend, Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh clearly was hoping to impress. In an August, 1888 letter to Emile Bernard, Van Gogh 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.

Contemplating the space which he and Gauguin would share, Van Gogh grew even more enthusiastic. Another August letter, to his brother Theo, conveys his excitement:

I’m writing to you in great haste, but to tell you that I’ve just received a line from Gauguin, who says that he hasn’t written because he was doing a great deal of work, but says he’s still ready to come to the south as soon as chance permits.
I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large Sunflowers.
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.”

In less than a week, Van Gogh had created a series of four extraordinary paintings.

The first, held by a private collector, shows three yellow-orange sunflowers in a green glazed pot, against a turquoise background.

The second, also representing three flowers in a pot, includes three more flowers on the table and a royal blue wall. Unfortunately, the painting was destroyed in 1945, during the American bombing of the Japanese town of Ashiya.

A third painting, similar to the one shown above and now among the holdings of the Neue Pinakothek gallery in Munich, shows 14 sunflowers against a turquoise background.

In his letters, Van Gogh left a detailed record of the origin of the first three paintings in his 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.  (Letter 666)

A few days later, he writes:

“I’m now on the fourth painting of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bouquet of 14 flowers and is on a yellow background. (Letter 668)

In fact, that fourth painting was the one shown above: Still life: Vase with 15 Sunflowers. Discrepancies exist between the paintings and Van Gogh’s descriptions of them; this fourth version shows not the fourteen flowers indicated in his letter, but fifteen.  Still, the number of sunflowers is somewhat beside the point. The continued popularity of the painting, recognizable even to people not schooled in art or art history, points to the truth of Van Gogh’s own words:

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock. But I have the sunflower, in a way. (Letter 741)

For much of my life, I gave no thought to the quirks of Van Gogh’s sunflowers; I simply enjoyed them. While some seemed unlikely to be found in nature, I assumed their unusual forms were due to his painterly vision. The Starry Night certainly didn’t resemble my stretch of night sky, so it made sense that his sunflowers would differ from those bordering my grandmother’s garden.

On the other hand, the sunflower family is richly diverse. Dr. John M. Burke, a specialist in plant evolutionary genetics at the University of Georgia in Athens, notes that “The sunflower family is most speciose family of flowering plants.” A quick review of native sunflowers in Texas proves his point. Though not exhaustive, this small collection is representative.

There’s the cucumberleaf sunflower, with its long, sinuous stem.

Cucumberleaf Sunflower (Helianthus debilis ssp. cucumerifolius) ~ Steven Schwartzman (click image for greater size and more information)

Most agree that this common sunflower is uncommonly attractive.

Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) ~ Steven Schwartzman (click image for greater size and more information)

The Maximilian sunflower is a late bloomer, often carrying on well into the fall.

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) ~ Steven Schwartzman (click image for greater size and more information)

The bush sunflower, though not so dramatic as some, has leaves that are favored by white-tailed deer.

Bush sunflower (Simsia calva) ~ Steven Schwartzman (click image for greater size and more information)

And in my part of Texas, the Silverleaf sunflower, a self-sowing annual, is a beautiful addition to our coastal areas. I found these on the Matagorda dunes while celebrating Independence Day on the beach.

Silver-leaf sunflower (Helianthus argophyllus) ~ Click to enlarge

Each of these sunflowers actually contains two sorts of flowers. At the center of the sunflower’s head, a multitude of disk flowers (or florets) nestle together in overlapping spirals. These tubular, star-crowned flowers bear pollen, and eventually turn into seeds. The yellow fringe surrounding the disks of the sunflowers shown here is another sort of flower: sterile ray florets that have evolved to look like petals.

Van Gogh’s paintings include these typical sunflowers, but they are paired with what appear to be overgrown European dandelions. Such double-flowered sunflowers, as they are known, have overlapping rows of supple yellow petals and a small, sometimes hidden center.

Some have suggested the odd, sunny flowers in Van Gogh’s paintings are the “Teddy Bear” variety: a cultivar of  Helianthus annuus. Others aren’t so sure.

The “Teddy Bear” Sunflower

Curious about Van Gogh’s “other” sunflowers, John Burke and his colleagues began studying them, finally tracing the unusual floral arrangement to mutations of a single critical gene. The findings appeared in the March 29, 2012 issue of PLos Genetics, with the impressive title,Genetic Analysis of Floral Symmetry in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Reveals Independent Recruitment of CYCLOIDEA Genes in the Asteraceae.

Working with typical sunflowers as well as double-flowered cultivars such as the Teddy Bear, crossing different varieties of sunflowers with one another, and then crossing their offspring with themselves, the researchers discovered that double-flowered cultivars have mutated forms of a gene called HaCYC2c.

Usually, HaCYC2c is turned on only in ray florets, but Burke discovered that double-flowered sunflowers turn on the gene in disc florets as well. A Scientific American article puts it nicely:

In mutant sunflowers, HaCYC2c seems to contain a superfluous chunk of DNA that fiddles with the gene’s on/off switch. Burke also created sunflowers in which HaCYC2c was never expressed, or produced misformed proteins. In those sunflowers, ray florets did not develop properly and the whorl of seeds was fringed with unusually large, tubular disc florets.

Put more simply, the researchers traced the differences between mutant and more usual sunflowers to insertions of chunks of DNA in the gene HaCYC2c. In the double-flowered mutants, there was one insertion; in the tubular flowers, there were two.

It looks like this gene is a key player in determining ray versus disc morphology in sunflowers,” says Burke. “Basically, if you turn on the gene in the wrong place, it’ll cause disc flowers to look like ray flowers. Conversely, if you knock the gene out, it causes the ray florets to become more disc-like.
A normal sunflower on the left, a double-flowered in the center, and another mutation with ‘tubular’ florets  (Click to enlarge)

Writing in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr says, “The first double-flowered sunflowers probably arose naturally due to a chance mutation. Breeders likely seized the opportunity to preserve the mutants’ unique qualities and offer customers a new kind of sunflower.”

Mark Chapman, a co-author of the study published by Burke, agrees: “This sort of thing would be selected against under natural conditions. This was presumably a random mutation.”

Finding such random mutations in the wild may be rare, but it’s not impossible. On the same day I was admiring the Silverleaf sunflowers at Matagorda, I chanced upon two flowers that seemed not to belong to the colony. While they shared stems with other, perfectly normal-looking sunflowers, they had an almost fluffy appearance: attractive, but strange.

Intrigued, I took some photos, then came home and started trying to untangle the mystery.  Today, I’m convinced the sunflowers were mutants: natural examples of the genetic process studied by John Burke.

A fancied-up Silverleaf sunflower (click to enlarge)

The entire experience has been filled with multiple pleasures: the surprise of finding such unusual flowers; the satisfaction of identifying a species I’ve known but never named; the discovery and eventual rudimentary understanding of Burke’s research.

But the greatest pleasure of all is an impossible-to-prove idle thought. Perhaps Van Gogh, in search of sunflowers for his painting, didn’t turn to the local florist for a clutch of cultivars. Perhaps he stepped outside, spotted some naturally fluffy, mutated sunflowers and thought, “Those are strange, but they’re attractive. I believe I’ll add them to my vase.”


Comments are welcome, always
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95 thoughts on “Stems Fit For Van Gogh’s Vase

    1. I’d never thought much about them either, Gary. And I certainly didn’t know anything about sunflower cultivars, mutations, and so on. I brought home the photos, and started with a search for “unusual fluffy sunflowers.” Now I know a good bit more about both Van Gogh and his sunflowers.

  1. Hi Linda:

    You have opted to write about flowers; flowers that I have photographed on several occasions. It’s an irony that such a controversial man could create such beauty.

    The close bond between him and his brother is extraordinary.

    Yes Linda, you have chosen an exquisite subject to write about and writing is what you do best, with the same good taste of Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

    Oh, one more thing before I forget. Van Gogh’s friend, Paul Gauguin, once lived in Taboga in Panama before departing to Tahiti in the Suth Pacific where he lived until his death.

    Thank you for giving me a splendid Sunday morning.

    Bye,

    Omar.-

    1. I remember some of your sunflower photos, Omar. They’re among my favorites — I suppose because they always seem so bright and cheerful.

      It was interesting to explore the correspondence between Van Gogh and his brother. I’d never read more than snippets, so having the entire correspondence available, and searchable was a real treat.

      I remember your series on Taboga, but I’d forgotten that Gauguin lived there for a time. I need to take another look at the photos, and imagine how the island shaped his vision and his artwork.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I certainly learned a lot while working on it.

      Linda

    1. What a nice surprise, Justin. I’ve been thinking about you and Kayla recently, because of this post. Needless to say, any image search for sunflowers brings up Four String Farm, and some of those beautiful photos of Kayla with your sunflowers.

      I hope all’s well with your family and the crops. And I’m glad to have brightened your morning a bit, thanks to Van Gogh and the sunflowers.

      Linda

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Andrew, and I’m especially glad to hear that it came alive for you. So often, people oppose “science” and “art,” but when they get into conversation with one another, the results can be wonderful. I’ll certainly never look at Van Gogh’s sunflowers in quite the same way.

      Linda

  2. I appreciate your explanation. I think I’ve seen some double sunflower-family flower heads but didn’t realize what they were. I also have a vague recollection of seeing some heads with tubular ray florets but likewise didn’t realize what they were. From now on I’ll be on the lookout for those things.

    1. And I appreciate Dr. Burke and his team’s research. From the number of articles I found, it seems their results were big news in the sunflower/plant genetics/art worlds back in 2012, but I never would have known about them had I not stumbled onto those two sunflowers at Matagorda. Now that I’ve seen the double flower heads, I’ll be looking for the tubular ray florets, too.

      One interesting side note: I found the sunflowers on the same stretch of beach where I found the two purple Janthina janthina shells that led to my posts about Charles Torrey Simpson and his shell collecting. Who knows that I’ll find down there next?

      1. Let’s hope what you find next down there is some long-lost pirate treasure.

        I’ve never come across the silver-leaf sunflower in its natural habitat but the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin has occasionally planted some that I have seen.

  3. Beautiful post, and so informative, just to think that Van Gogh actually used a bunch of mutated sunflowers from the wild to paint his painting is fascinating. Thank you.

    1. I also believe these mutants occur within other exotic tropical plants found in the wild. P.R. has unique Heliconias, which people think of as “cultivars”, but they are really mutants which have developed into entirely different Heliconias, endemic only to P.R..

      1. I know “bird of paradise,” of course, but I didn’t know the name “Heliconia.” What an astonishing array of colors they have. I looked at the Heliconia Society of P.R. page — so beautiful.

        One of the interesting facts about the silverleaf sunflower is that it’s endemic in coastal Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. That’s quite a spread. The more I learn about native plants, the more interesting they become.

        1. 60% of P.R.’s flora is exotic, but fortunately the island has actually benefited from this situation. Tropical islands have to rely on drought tolerant coastal plants, so this explains why some of the plants are all similar throughout the Greater Antilles. We are very similar to Hispaniola with our flora, and to the U.S. Virgin Islands also.

    2. Since finishing this post, I’ve found another detail that supports the idea that Van Gogh used wild sunflowers for his paintings. Here’s a brief selection from an article:

      ” He began painting sunflowers in earnest, in August, 1888. He’d planned on painting from life that week but fate intervened, by way of some models who simply didn’t show up on time. Struck by the muse and eager to put pigment to canvas, Van Gogh cut some locally grown sunflowers, arranged them in a terra-cotta vase, and began to work. Within five days he’d completed four still-life paintings.”

      Just like that! What an amazing story.

      1. Yes, he also painted Irises, which kind could be subject for another article, but I really like how you explained and illustrated the mutants Linda, it’s a great article!

  4. I often wonder why I didn’t take an art class elective in college, Linda. Those who can see and appreciate art — its forms, its creators — always seem more “educated” than the rest of us mortals!

    Thank you for a delightful lesson in Van Gogh’s sunflowers this morning. Of course, sunflowers grow here in Illinois (http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/prairie/plantx/an_sunflowerx.htm), but I don’t have any in my yard. Maybe I ought to remedy that next spring?!

    Nice that Vincent took such pains to produce paintings to spruce up his home before company could arrive — kind of makes him feel more human, doesn’t it?!

    1. I didn’t take an art class elective in college either, Debbie. The good news is, it’s never too late to learn something new, and learning seems to be getting easier all the time.

      The fact that all of Van Gogh’s letters are online and searchable amazed me. But there they were — all I had to do was type in “sunflowers,” and every letter he’d written or received in regard to sunflowers was right there for my reading pleasure.

      Somewhere I read that there are thirty cultivars of the annual sunflower you linked to. If you decide to give them a try, take a look at the offerings for your area. You can get tall ones or shorter ones, bushier ones or ones that produce more seed. And I remember reading you should start them in 4″ pots, because they don’t like to have their little roots disturbed when they’re transplanted.

      Gauguin liked the sunflower paintings so much, he asked Van Gogh to paint duplicates for him. And, ten years after leaving Arles, Gauguin asked for sunflower seeds to be sent to him in Tahiti, where he grew the flowers, and then painted them himself. Amazing.

  5. This post is the quintessential art/history/science/nature pure joy of learning that I find so intriguing about our quest to understand and luxuriate in the world around us. I love love love that your curious mind took you on a path with sunflowers much like my own might have. Tying your walk and your genetic mutation discoveries to scientific research, Van Gogh’s letters and paintings and your musings about how he might have similarly happened upon mutation curiosities – it all just makes me smile inside and outside. Not to mention I just finished one of my own ‘hunting/gathering’ nature walks and that sunflowers of all varieties are favorites.

    I’m saving this post for re-reads. Thank you so much!

    1. Sammy, the thought that you’d save this for a re-read tickles me no end. And I especially like the way you pair “understand” and “luxuriate in” when it comes to the world. Understanding the world — knowing “about” it — is important. But we also have the opportunity to live in relationship with it, and enjoy that relationship, if we so choose.

      One thing I’ve learned over the years is that curiosity and the joy of learning can be nurtured, just like sunflowers. LIkewise, curiosity and joy can be stifled. It’s a shame when it happens, but I’ve decided that, in my little corner of the world, curiosity, humor, joy, and a good-natured acceptance of my limitations are going to be the order of the day.

      The next time you see a sunflower, give it my regards!

      1. Those are the tenets of healthy aging – curiosity, humor, joy and (adaptive) acceptance !

        I have ‘a million’ similar posts in my mind – incorporating my own musing with research on a particular artist, location, nature element or historical tie. I get stuck on how to put it all together for concise, meaningful blogposts but I revel in the research and musings! So I appreciate how well-organized you are (not without considerable effort, I imagine). Just wanted to give you feedback that your efforts are admired and appreciated.

        1. I do put effort into my posts: sometimes more, sometimes less. But my goal always is to keep my effort invisible, and let the writing stand on its own.

          As for getting stuck, and finding it hard to organize, you might enjoy reading a post from years ago, called “Simplify, Simplify.” The heart of the piece is an aphorism I coined for myself: “Purity of prose is to write one thing.”
          It was hard, learning to discern the “one thing necesary” for each blog post, and then keep focus on it, but it helps.

          And I do thank you for those very kind words. I don’t give a flip about statistics, but I do enjoy engaged and appreciative readers.

          1. Thanks for the link to Simplify! I have often begun a post thinking my main point was ‘X’ and upon finishing, realized I never got around to ‘X’ because another main point revealed itself in the process.

            ‘Simplify’ reassured me this is normal and ok. I seldom have writer’s block because of lack of musings; only because it is difficult to coalesce them into that simplest, meaningful form and be content to cover the remainder at a later date.

            Your ‘Simplify’ will be a valuable tool to remind me why that is a good method of writing.

  6. Just yesterday I was driving at the edge of the foothills between Fort Collins and Loveland, along a stretch of yet-undeveloped land where the sunflowers were nodding happily in the morning light. Your piece has only enhanced the experience.

    1. What a wonderful thought: retrospective appreciation! It’s really amazing how widespread the sunflowers are, and how many varieties exist. The history of the plant is fascinating, too. But there’s nothing like a field filled with sunflowers, especially the natives. When I see them, I can’t help but smile. I hope my piece brought you an extra smile, too.

  7. Very much enjoyed your sunflower discoveries. Also looked back at your shell post. I am just emerging from the fog of flu. These posts are food for my brain. I am imagining my room filled with painted sunflowers and real sunflowers…happy thought.

    1. Gallivanta, I was going to say there’s nothing worse than being ill in the middle of summer,but then I remembered: you have a different season to deal with. I hope you’re on the mend, and that mending comes quickly.

      There’s a lovely bakery and café in Galveston called (of course) The Sunflower Bakery. It’s a wonderful place, especially for brunch, and it’s beautifully done in yellows and blues. They were smart enough not to put kitschy sunflowers everywhere, but the spirit of Van Gogh hovers, and there are just enough live blooms to make everyone happy.

      Since I can’t bring you a bouquet of sunflowers, I’ll send along a substitute. Clearly, every lady likes sunflowers!

    1. This one was wonderful fun, Susan. I did get a little bogged down when I hit “Mendelian crosses,” but eventually I figured out the phrase had nothing to do with European punk rock, and all was well.

      Hunches are good. As a matter of fact, it seems to be the case that Dr. Burke was following a hunch himself, at least to some degree. “I wonder why…?” and “What if…” are such useful questions!

  8. Love it. The variety of sunflowers is astounding, but I love the connection to Van Gogh’s work. I remember a few years ago, someone suggested that Van Gogh had some version of color blindness, as well, and when they put his paintings through a color blind filter, the pigments were altered to closer to what a regular eye might see. It was really interesting to think that the style we have all come to love might have been its own mutation in the artist. Great post, as always!

    1. I bumped into those reports, Alex. Here’s one that provides an illustration of “The Starry Night,” filtered and unfiltered. It occurs to me that color-blindness might not be the only condition that could afflict a visual artist. The first symptom I had of cataracts was a definite fading of color in one eye. I discovered it looking at grass — the difference in color between my right eye and my left sent me straight to the ophthalmologist.

      Of course, there are those who would argue that all true artists are mutated in one way or another, so there’s that!

  9. Linda, your flower post is my cup of tea. The sunflower that you found on the coast is quite pretty. I would love to grow that one. Usually I have the small headed native sunflower that was growing in my deserted little garden but this year the garden has been resurrected and I have a nice crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, Clemson squash, okra and butternut squash. The birds surely did enjoy those sunflowers in late summer and early Autumn. In another part of my yard, I’ve had Maximilian sunflower, for many years. It makes a great cut flower and is very pretty in a vase.

    1. With any luck at all Yvonne, I’ll be heading back down to Matagorda later this summer. The silverleaf is in the first flush of bloom, and will keep going well into fall. By the time I get back, some may be going to seed, and if I can beat off the red-winged blackbirds and such, I’ll collect some for you.

      Your garden sounds wonderful. What’s a Clemson squash? I tried searching for it, but there were so many links to Clemson University sites with gardening information, I gave up. I do suspect it might be from Clemson, though — rather like the 1015 onion is associated with A&M.

      The Maximilians are pretty. A friend says she’s going to try the ones that produce the big, striped seeds next year. She loves bluejays and squirrels, and both favor the striped seeds if they can get them.

      1. That would be wonderful if you can gather some seeds. It will be “touch and go” though to get there before the birds strip the seeds.
        \
        The white Clemson squash Is round with ridges and sort of looks like a flat mushroom. That’s my best description. I’ll look it up and see what I can find. I’ll be doing a post about the summer produce- that is if I ever get the time.

        1. Thanks for the additional details and the link, Yvonne. Turns out I do know it, as pattypan. One of my local farmers raises it, so I’ll have to see if it’s still in their market.

  10. What a lot of information and what a masterful job of putting it together it is late and I kept trying to find a place to slip out. No escape. I read it all plus going back occasionally to see the pictures again. Then I got hooked on the comments! Not sorry. Good reading. Now good night.

    1. Well, Oneta, I hope you slept well after all of that, and had wonderful sunflower dreams!

      One of the things I most enjoyed about this one was bringing together a little art and science. Even though I received a good education in high school, I do remember the way some teachers liked to oppose “fine art” and “hard science” to one another. It seems perfectly silly now, but so it was.

      The photos are wonderful, aren’t they? Many of Steve’s readers call that vibrant blue the “patented Schwartzman sky.” It certainly does grab and hold the attention, and it’s a perfect complement to any sunflower.

      I happy to have roped you in and tied you up for a few minutes. That’s something wonderful — many thanks!

  11. Van Gogh and Sunflowers… you did a great post again dear Linda, I have never thought about them before, through your writing, I wonder more now :) Thank you dear Linda, love, nia

    1. It’s a wonder-filled world, Nia. There’s so much to see, and so many questions to be asked and answered — as you do with your camera. The learning is fun, but the sharing is even better. I’m happy you liked this! ~ Linda

  12. A friend had a print of, “Still Life: Vase With 15 Sunflowers,” (not the paper variety but one of those old fashioned prints on a type of cardboard), in their summer cabin. As a young girl it was my first encounter with van Gogh. Thank you for this lovely reminder and for providing a deeper look at how and why these came to be. I love that we have all these letters he wrote to give us glimpses into his rich inner life. And,I will be looking at all sunflowers now with a keener eye. I love this sentence: “I found these on the Matagorda dunes while celebrating Independence Day on the beach.” I can almost smell the sunshine and sea air.

    1. Teresa, one of the odd tidbits I gleaned while I was doing research for this post is that the National Gallery in London, where the painting is located, has sold more postcards of “Still Life: Vase with 15 Sunflowers” than any museum has sold of any painting. And how about this? You can see the painting in the gallery, through their virtual tour.

      My first college roommate brought a poster of the painting with her to school. I thought it was pretty then, and it certainly brightened up the room, but it’s amazing that it took a mutant Texas native sunflower to get me to take a closer look.

      You’d like the middle Texas coast. There’s good shelling, plenty of native wildflowers and grasses, and good fishing. It’s a rich birding area, too; in the winter there are whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, Canadian and snow geese, and every sort of water bird. Fall and winter are wonderful: more wildlife, fewer tourists.

  13. Thank you so much, Linda, for this amazing post. These bright sunflowers brightened my otherwise gloomy Monday morning. Very interesting indeed to see the science behind the art. I never knew about the mutations but it makes sense.

    1. I hope it’s only the weather that’s gloomy, Bee. In any event, the painting is a happy one, isn’t it? The more I think about this, the more touched I am by the thought that Van Gogh didn’t have to have “perfect” sunflowers for his paintings. He took what was at hand, and painted them.

      One thing I didn’t know is that there were earlier sunflower paintings, too. In those, he showed past-their-prime sunflowers, with fallen rays flowers and drying leaves and stems. In their way, they’re more compelling than photos of fields filled with miles of cultivated sunflowers.

      Here’s one I especially like. It almost looks like the other kind of mutation, doesn’t it?

  14. I like that word “speciose”….so much for being a lumper!!

    I have always loved sunflowers, but looking at the selection you have here, it is the traditional sunflower I love best. Same with hibiscus probably, though a double hibiscus is lovely too. I enjoy the bright yellows again the deep, bright blues in both the paintings and Steve’s photographs! Sometimes a cloudless blue sky can be a marvelous and unreal back drop!!

    Your post feels like summer!! Bright and beautiful!

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever come across “speciose,” Judy. I had to look it up, just to confirm it meant what I thought it did. It’s a great word. And I laughed at your “lumper.” I suppose we all start out that way. When we’re children, a flower is just a flower. Then, it becomes a violet, a tulip, forsythia, hollyhock. I wonder if we remember the flowers of our childhood so vividly in part because they’re tied in with our developing language?

      Yellow and blue are glorious companions. I would have liked blue skies for my sunflower photos, but that wasn’t going to happen. We had Saharan dust galore, and sunsets and sunrises were nearly as yellow as the flowers. But we take what we’re dealt, just like your poor one-legged bird.

      It certainly has turned into summer here. We always know that it’s going to turn hot in July, but when it happens, and happens with a vengeance, it’s a shock to the system. Thank goodness we have the sunflowers to cheer us up!

  15. I adore how you’ve inspired thought on Van Gogh’s passion for the beauty found everywhere in Nature — which always truly struck me about the man and the artist. You could see and feel that LOVE!

    Wonderful article / post — many thanks for it. :)

    1. After reading some of his letters, FeyGirl, I’m more interested in Van Gogh the man than I ever have been. His life was so fraught in so many ways, it’s easy to fixate on the weird, the troubling, and the perplexing. We miss a good bit else about his life if we do that.

      As you say, his love of nature, and his compulsion to communicate its beauty, has been a real gift. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It was great fun to learn so many things in the process of writing it.

  16. I never thought much about sunflowers except that they were pure sun in the garden. Thanks for inviting me into the world of sunflowers. Lovely pictures too, Steve. Also grateful to Omar for the information that Gaugin spent some time in Panama. I had never read that. Thanks Linda – you touched many buttons with this one.

    1. Isn’t it something, how a 19th century painter, a 21st century plant geneticist, an Austin photographer, and a Panamanian blogger can keep such great company? It’s a bit of a wonder, really. I think Van Gogh would be pleased (and a little astonished) to see how his work is enduring and still being shared.

      You’re right about sunflowers being like distilled sunlight. Now and then I get a volunteer in a pot, and I always let them grow. Even one or two in a corner light things up and bring a smile. All they need is a little dirt, and a little water, and they’re ready to grow.

      You might enjoy stopping by Omar’s blog and looking through his series of posts about Taboga. He visited the island, and has some wonderful photos.

  17. Wow, and I always thought sunflowers were sunflowers – full stop. But then again, my wife is the gardener. For the last two years, Highway 6 South (on the way to our boat) boasted a field of commercial sunflowers. This became a major tourist destination. People would be lined up on the highway to take photographs of the sunflowers. The farmer was interviewed in the local paper, and said that the field could only host the flowers for two years. Sure enough, this year we see corn where we once saw sunflowers, although in a sense, I see them still.

    1. If you have a few minutes, Allen, you might enjoy this history of the sunflower’s journey from this continent, to Europe and Russia, and back again.

      There’s even a bit of an ecclesiastical twist to the tale:

      “It was not until the eighteenth century that the sunflower gained huge popularity as a cultivated plant, and the person we have to thank for that is perhaps not the first who might spring to mind.

      Peter the Great of Russia went on one of his many trips and landed in Holland. There, he became so enamored of the giant flower that he took seeds back to Russia where the people were no doubt nonplussed by it – at least to begin with.

      During Lent, the Russian Orthodox Church forbad its adherents from consuming oil. However, the oil of the sunflower was not on the prohibited list and the Russian people jumped on Peter’s bandwagon wholeheartedly. By the third decade of the nineteenth century sunflower oil was manufactured in Russia on a large and highly lucrative commercial scale.”

      There’s much more, including the return of the sunflower to Canada, and breeding developments that turned it into a cash crop that has potential for even more development. It’s really fascinating — adding economics to the mix of science and art swirling around one beautiful flower.

  18. I saw the sunflower painting in Philadelphia. Your research as always is impeccable. Thank you. I had no idea there were all those mutant varieties, sort of like people, we blossom and fall and take on a new elbow (metaphorically, that is).

    1. One of the stores where I shop has a large floral department, and they always have sunflowers. I’ve glanced at ones with red, purple, and multi-colored ray flowers, and assumed they’d been doctored up somehow — like dyeing carnations those ghastly shades of green or orange.

      In fact, there are sunflower cultivars that come in assorted colors, as well as degrees of fluffiness. Aren’t these something? Truth to tell, I prefer the natives, but there’s clearly a market for the fancy ones.

      It’s great that you saw the actual painting. I’m always fascinated by the difference between a photo and the original. To see the layers of paint, the brush strokes, the details — photos just can’t capture it all.

  19. So many artists have a passion that drives them to create such fine works, but I don’t think I have ever heard of one that can rival Van Gogh’s and his work’s raison d’être. Artists are often portrayed as tortured souls and I’d say Vincent was the poster child for that.
    Probably my favorite Leonard Nimoy role was that of Theo Van Gogh reading Vincent’s letters and eulogizing his brother. Mary Beth and I will be going to Wiliiamsburg, MA for this in the next few weeks. I am hoping that some of his sunflowers will be part of the exhibit.

    Steve’s first image reminds me of so many daisies that I have found, apparently covering a yawn. I wonder if that is a trait for composites or just an anomaly of occasional flowers.

    As always, you have done a fine job of research and presentation, Linda. Quite enjoyable reading.

    1. I think people like Van Gogh are so easily reduced to a few dramatic facts (cut off ear, went to an asylum, etc.) that we often miss the more nuanced and interesting aspects of their characters.
      I certainly have missed a good bit in terms of his relationship with Theo, and I’m looking forward to exploring that correspondence. I didn’t have a clue about the Nimoy role. It’s available on DVD, but at a very hefty price — probably because of Nimoy as much as Van Gogh. There are some clips of interviews with Nimoy about the project on YouTube, so I’ll have a look at those.

      I’m glad you linked to the exhibit. In a sense, I’ll be going along with you. I looked at the catalog on the museum site, and saw (as we say in Texas) they were pretty proud of it. But then I found it for much less on Amazon, and ordered it. It will be fun to read it, and then hear how you and Mary Beth experience the paintings.

      My anthropomorphizing about the yawning flower was a little different. I saw it as shy, and perhaps giggling behind its ray. From what Steve says, any giggling may be coming from the spider or other critter who managed to create a hideaway.

      I’m glad you found the post enjoyable. Wandering into a field I know so little about always feels like wire-walking, but taking on the challenge is fun.

      1. We haven’t chosen a date to visit The Clark yet. I was thinking next Monday, but now my car has to go in for a “Check Engine Light” analysis, so that’s out. I’d prefer going on a weekday to avoid the crowd.
        The fact that most folks think of Van Gogh as cutting off his ear or the singular “Starry Night” as who he was is not surprising…at least not in our current sound bite existence where few people have any interest in delving into things for themselves and are more interested in hyperbole than fact. As you know, my pessimism sees doom for our society and that is one of the prime reasons.

          1. Thanks for the link to that article, Linda. It is too bad so much is being eliminated from basic education such as art history. More folks should be talking about topics such as how artists react to the work of others than whether Kim has been airbrushed.

  20. Linda, this essay is a great ode to the sunflower. They are such wonderful plants—the common or normal and silver leaf are epidemic in Australia—growing tall, faces always to the sun, and providing a rich cooking oil for kitchen use.

    I was delighted by your presentation of Van Gogh’s three sunflower paintings. My favourite among them is the second one. I also have been able to read some of his letters to his brother, Theo and I particularly love the letters written during his work on several different paintings of “Starry Night.” There is no better way to meet another person, and peer into their working habits, than to peruse their letters.
    Thank you for sharing this one.

    1. How wonderful that you have the silver leaf too, Mary. I think it may be my favorite of all the sunflowers. It thrives so well in the sandy soil along the coast, and it does pretty well in the drought/flood cycles that come along.

      What you say about letters is so true. Have you happened across “Letters of Note”? I found the website first. Then, the first book was published. And, if you look at the top of the right sidebar at the site, there’s a link to “Letters Live,” where you can hear various letters being read by people who know how to do that.

      Speaking of “Starry Night,” this pen and ink study is one of my personal favorites. I think you’ll like it, too.

  21. The sunflower boasts a magnificent heart, one larger than most other yellow flowers. I, too, viewed over 20 acres of them off Highway 5 on my way to Oregon this month. At dusk, when the sky is that cerulean blue Van Gogh describes, when the fading light the sunflowers reach for causes them to arch upward, we as witnesses inhale their stunning beauty and their collective statement: Rejoice!! Take heart!

    1. You’re so right in your description of the sunflower as big-hearted and heart-cheering, Cheri. I like yellow flowers of all sorts, but I love the sunflower. Seeing them here is almost impossible to avoid. Except in The Land of the Incessant Mowers, they’re everywhere — even though we don’t have them in cultivated fields. (At least, I haven’t seen them.) It must be quite a sight, those acres of flowers.

      I can’t believe I lived in California and never traveled the 5. I commuted from Berkeley to Rio Vista every weekend for a while, but that was through Walnut Creek and Concord, up to Highway 4 and then over to 160. Looking at the map, I discovered I went right past Shore Acres, California — it’s along the river. That’s funny.

      Just to check the weirdness level, I went looking for Shore Acres, Iowa, and found it. There’s a Shore Acres Boat Club, Shore Acres Cottages, and more — all on the shores of Clear Lake. That’s exactly where I live now, except the Clear Lake I’m looking at is in Texas. Somehow, all unknowing, I picked a screen name that carries echoes of three important places in my life.

      1. Though some may disagree, Highway 5 south to LA is awful. A few pretty landscapes but for the most part, unremarkable. Highway 5 north to Red Bluff, Redding, and Shasta is another story. From Red Bluff north, the vistas, mountains, rivers, and tundra are lovely.
        and Shoreacres, I have never heard of Shore Acres, California!

  22. I’m quite sure Van Gogh did just that, went to his florist and picked a few!
    I did enjoy this, being a huge V.G and sunflower fan and all….the study was fascinating!
    I have never seen the Teddy Bear sunflower before, but clearly V.G painted them…
    I do love your native ones, especially the mutants you spotted which inspired this most interesting post!xxx

    1. One of the nice things about the Teddy Bear sunflower is that it’s a low grower. I can’t remember exactly, but I’d say two or three feet, and bushy. It’s one of the varieties that’s recommended for “kid gardeners,” because of its small size and really cute blooms.

      Maybe it was the kid inside Van Gogh that liked those bushy sunflowers, whether they were cultivars or natives. Or it could just have been his artistic eye, seeing that a vase with two kinds of flowers would be more interesting than a vase holding only one sort.

      In any event, we’ve all been enriched by his life and his artistry. And it’s interesting that, somehow, coming at all this through science helped me to appreciate his art even more.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I can’t remember seeing them — do you have sunflowers in your garden?

      1. Oh yes…I always grow sunflowers, but here’s the thing….you have to move them around the garden as they pollute the soil they grow in, to kill off other plants…weird but true!xxx

  23. We love sunflowers, and we planted a field of them right behind the house this year. They’re set to bloom soon and I’m looking forward to that. Aside from their beauty, they’re an excellent summer cover crop. But Cherie is the flower person here. She gave me the initial seed and she harvests and saves the seed each year. I honestly don’t know what variety we grow. Will have to check on this!

    Your post puzzled me because I felt confident we’d seen one of those paintings in a museum. So I consulted the Google, learning that the version I’ve seen is in Philadelphia and is a reproduction of the painting in Munich. I’ve been to the National Gallery in London and possibly saw it there, but the one I definitely recall is in Philadelphia. Your posts never fail to both entertain and inform.

    1. I remember some photos in your blog that showed the sunflowers drying after harvest. Do you sell the heads at market? I’m sure they would be huge sellers. Both of the picking farms I go to have large stands of zinnias and sunflowers, and allow people to pick the flowers, too. At one place, you pay $3, which gets you a huge cup and as many flowers as you can get in it.

      As for Van Gogh’s sunflowers, here’s a great page that has them all listed, with clickable links.

      Now, for the really interesting tidbit. I went on a search to see if Justin and Kayla at Four String Farm were doing anything with sunflowers, and found this:

      “Indians also planted sunflowers as living fences to protect their crops. We adopted this method on our farm and planted a hedgerow of sunflowers to shield our crops from the relentless Gulf winds. This living fence now grows so dense that even deer will not try to break though it to sneak into our gardens.”

      How about that? Maybe you should keep all those seeds for yourself. The silver leaf is endemic in North Carolina, so I can’t think of any reason it shouldn’t grow well for you. I found several articles that said sunflower fences won’t work, but it clearly has at Four String.

      And, a newsletter in Bangor, Maine, noted that ” sunflower hulls are lethal for deer when ingested in quantity. There is a chemical compound in the hull that kills the microbes in a deer’s paunch, leading to the deer’s demise.” It’s a different kind of shell than the ones you were contemplating, but it might have a role to play.

  24. Just for fun, there was a Doctor Who episode with Vincent van Gogh in it, that had some of the sunflower paintings in it, the one you show in particular. It was noted at the very end of the episode when the Doctor and Amy went back to the museum that that particular painting had something new added. The actor who played van Gogh not only did a really good job but bore an eerie resemblance to the self portraits. — he looked a lot more like them than Kirk Douglas did — LOL!.

    They grow sunflowers hereabouts as a cash crop — at the right time of year you can drive by acres of them. Acres of sunflowers and Vincent van Gogh is an interesting what if . . . My birthday card from my mother this year had a painting of sunflowers and goldfinches on it. I’ve got a silk bouquet of them put in a French mustard crock like they were the real thing.

    Rudbeckia hirta angustifolia grow wild around here, and just the other day, I passed a business that had some of the big seed sunflowers that grow about 6 feet tall that had been planted in a flower bed between the street and their parking lot. Eye catching — especially as they were in full bloom.

    1. I’ve always been fond of Dr. Who, especially in the earliest days. That’s a great clip, and you’re right about the resemblance. The other thing I noticed in the Wiki was the expressed desire to portray Van Gogh without easy jokes about his personality and erratic behavior. That’s part of what helped make the program a good one.

      I had no idea you were sunflower-cropping up there. But of course, much of the Panhandle still is a blank for me. I’ve been filling it in, piece by piece, and another trip in sunflower season would be great, although I’ve at least learned the lesson that a weekend isn’t enough. Texas is big north and south, as well as east and west.

      I like the thought of sunflowers as part of the urban landscape. It’s certainly more appealing than the pretty but just slightly bland plantings we get around here. The desire for uniformity and constant bloom means an equally constant rip-em-out-put-em-in cycle. At least it provides full employment for a lot of commercial landscape enterprises.

  25. I’ve always loved sunflowers, Linda – well, I would, wouldn’t I, being a Leo Sun-child. This has been a veritable orgy of sunflower-worshipping. I have to go and lie down now to recover…

    1. I trust you’ve recovered by now, Anne. Of all the ways to wear yourself out, an enthusiastic appreciation of the sunflower seems entirely appropriate. Sunny days, sunny dispositions, the Beatles’ singing “Here Comes the Sun” — I think there’s little doubt why sunflowers make us happy.

      In fact, I can’t remember ever meeting a person who didn’t like sunflowers. If there is such a person, I’d love to meet them, just for the experience.

  26. Never enough sunflowers! I love it when artists keep detailed journals. There’s so much of a scientist in an artist – attention to detail , analysis, order, even the materials involved earth science, and chemistry with grinding and making real oil paint/frescoes and knowing how those colors would change in transparency, texture and color as they age over years and years which affects the whole painting.

    Love the fringy 3rd sunflower on the blue background. How much fun to find the ones on Matagorda.

    You should consider publishing a whole book of/about sunflowers…good start here with post and the comments – music connections and all

    1. Oh, goodness. I think sunflowers have pretty much been covered, bookwise: not to mention print-wise, iGadget cover-wise, kitchen towel-wise, etc., ad nauseum. I love them, and always am happy to see them or find out something new about that, but for some reason, writing a book about them brings to mind the old saying about coals and Newcastle!

      I’m with you on the science/art connection in terms of materials, and so on. In fact, I nearly included some of the information about the scandal that Van Gogh’s yellow in this painting caused. It was a side road, but interesting. Everything from epilepsy to absinthe has been offered as an explanation for his “high yellows,” but I still cast my lot with this explanation:

      “Van Gogh’s proclivity for exaggerated colours and his embrace of yellow in particular are clear from his letters and, in contradistinction to chemical or physical insults modifying perception, artistic preference is the best working hypothesis to explain the yellow dominance in his palette.”

  27. I had to laugh when Gauguin used his work as an excuse for not writing to his friend. He and I have that in common. I’m in good company, but I would not compare my bench or my walls to his “work.” I just sent an apology email to a friend. My aunt called to tell me that my friend told her that I hadn’t sent my new address and phone number. Ut oh. I used the move and getting settled as an excuse. I really need to get my head out of “new house mode.” It’s past time.

    It’s also nice to know that, like so many of us, Vincent van Gogh liked to “put on the dog” a little when company was coming. I’ve never painted sunflowers, but I’ve definitely fluffed the pillows, or tried to create a fabulous dish or two.

    1. Those were some of the very details that delighted me when I read the letters. I love the thought of Van Gogh being so excited about his friend’s arrival that he wanted to spiff things up, and I equally love that Gauguin found the sunflowers so appealing he sent for packets of seeds from Tahiti.

      As for your new house mode — I think some life experiences just run on their own schedule. We talk about it easily enough with experiences like grief, or healing after an accident or illness, but I completely understand how you might feel still in “new house mode.” I still talk about Princess as my “new car,” even though she has 36K miles on her. Of course, I’ve also known a mother or two who called her five-year-old “my new baby.” There are limits.

  28. Oh Linda, this post just did it for me! I have always loved sunflowers and of course, Van Gogh. I’m even familiar with the paintings — some of them — but not the back story. And of course, his relationship with Gauguin is the stuff of legend. My neighbor has sunflowers — maybe the Cumberleaf or close to it — and they have spread to the other side of the fence, which delights me. Several years ago I planted a different strain and planned to this year — but didn’t get it going in time. No matter, I still get to enjoy Rosie’s!

    There’s something so cheery about them, isn’t there? And the fact that their seed pods can feed many a bird always makes me smile.

    I can just imagine him being excited for his friend/colleague to come and want to really do it up right, make the studio a little more special. Don’t we all do that in our way, whether it’s just cleaning up better than usual or getting out the nice bath towels or fixing a special dinner. His words almost sound giddy with joy. I love this vision of VanGogh versus the more tortured one.

    Thank you for this before-bed smile.

    1. You need to do a craft workshop dedicated to sunflowers, Jeanie. Can you imagine how much fun you all could have with dried flower heads, seed packets, artistic renderings, clay models, and so on? I can see a whole series of cards, or even sunflower journals. Everyone likes sunflowers — they’d sell like crazy, I’m sure.

      Our grocery stores are full of sunflowers now — not just the pretty yellow ones, but red ones, and orange ones, and strangely formed ones. Clearly, the breeders have been busy. But to my taste, none of them compare to the ones found in nature, and it was those that Van Gogh celebrated.

      It was delightful to browse among his letters, especially the ones to his brother. And isn’t it so human, to want to please those we admire, to make our friends happy? There’s another thought — Van Gogh as a representative of the Cork Popper spirit. I can see you doing a Van Gogh sunflower night, too — with your neighbor’s sunflowers peeping over the fence!

  29. The possibilities are endless! So many colors! I really should look through my photos and see what I have in the collection and if they might be good photo cards. I love it when in the Tour de France they ride by the sunflower fields. Rick said when he was out riding one day he passed a similar one up north and that it was just breathtaking!

    Oh, now THAT would be fun! Wines of Southern France — Van Gogh country!

    1. Jeanie, your sunflowers probably are gone or going, and here I am just finding this comment. I must be more attentive! But of course you know how that goes.

      I’d love to see a collection of sunflower-themed work from you. There are so many possibilities that even my non-artistic mind gets stirred up a bit. It’s been ages since I’ve seen fields of sunflowers, but what a treat it must be. If that’s the sort of thing Rick gets to see on his rides, I can understand why they’re so pleasurable for him.

      I’ll look forward to seeing if the cork poppers have their Van Gogh night!

  30. Sunflowers are spectacular flowers in and of themselves (and no wonder that van Gogh found them worthy of being painted), but then to find mutant sunflowers, that must have been real fun. Another excellently researched post, Linda.

    1. It was great fun, Otto. I don’t know if the world is providing more interesting things to see, or if my eye is being trained to see more. I suspect the latter, but whichever, it’s great fun to discover something wonderful, and then share it.

      And, of course, it’s great fun to learn about the subject at hand. There are times when I suspect my writing is just a darned good excuse to keep my nose buried in books. It’s like going back to school.

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