Sunday, February 22, 2015

"The sunflower is mine,

in a way. 
 ~ Vincent Van Gogh

For many of us in the colder climates around the country, we are anxiously awaiting spring so I thought just a burst of color today, and what better color than the yellow of sun.  Then, once I think sun, I think sunflower as I have been constantly filling my bird feeders with pounds of sunflower seeds.   Sunflowers originated in the Americas in 1000B.C., where for centuries they were cultivated as a valuable food source. The sunflower is the Greek symbol of Clytie (a water nymph) who turns into a sunflower after grieving over the loss of her love Apollo.  Clytie (in the form of a sunflower) is always facing the sun, looking for Apollo's chariot to return so she might be joined again with her love. The sunflower is also a symbol of Daphne (another Greek nymph). Today, sunflowers continue to provide a resource for commonly used seeds and oil, but they have also become recognized as a floral symbol of great significance, but the well-known sunflower king is Van Gogh.  

The tale of his sunflower series is interesting.  Having been invited to show work alongside Les Vingt, an avant-garde group of 20 artists in Brussels, in January 1890, Van Gogh consulted his brother Theo as to what he should send. Theo recommended the sunflowers and explained why. "I've put one of the sunflowers on the mantelpiece in our dining room. It has the effect of a piece of fabric embroidered with satin and gold, it's magnificent." 
Van Gogh's stark simplicity and strong color did not appeal to the others in the show.  The artist Henry de Groux threatened to remove his own work from the 1890 exhibition if he found it in the same room as "the laughable pot of sunflowers by Mr Vincent". As Van Gogh's artist friends Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac were present when this was said, the evening ended in chaos, and a fight was only narrowly avoided. The next morning, De Groux resigned. To the critic of Le Journal de Charleroi, it was understandable: this artist had been "very justly exasperated" by Van Gogh's sunflowers.
Flower painting has a long history, but no other flower, Martin Bailey, the Van Gogh expert and journalist,  argues is so strongly associated with a particular artist as the sunflower is with Van Gogh. He painted his first ones soon after arriving in Paris in 1886. The apartment he and Theo shared was in the Rue Lepic, a steep road that leads up to the top of Montmartre. At that time, it had three windmills on its summit, allotments on its slopes and, among the vegetables, a scattering of flowers. Initially, sunflowers appeared as small details in Van Gogh's landscapes. Then in 1887, in a series of four oils, he made a close study of them, discovering the Fibonacci spiral in the whirling pattern of their seeds, and using their cut heads as a form of still life.
It was in Arles, France,  that the great sunflower period began. It coincided with his move into a small yellow house on the edge of the square. He got the landlord to repaint it so that the outside walls became the colour of fresh butter, and its shutters a green. Inside, the red-brick floors were offset by white-washed walls. It was five months before he could move in, but it inspired his great plan. He told Emile Bernard: "I'm thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of sunflowers."

So, as when you think of sunflowers, think of Van Gogh ignoring the critics and doing his own thing.  If you cannot wait for the real flower, we have some wonderful paper sunflowers to give you a burst of color for the final days of winter.

"The sunflower is the favorite emblem of constancy"
     ~Thomas Bullfinch

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