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.
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.
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.
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.