Nineteenth century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh had a unique perspective on the world, which he presented through breathtaking Post-Impressionistic paintings. But before he caught the world’s imagination, and even before he created The Starry Night, this mercurial man dedicated himself to the surreal and beautiful wonder of Sunflowers.
Those famous Sunflowers got an inadvertent makeover on October 14, 2022, when, as CNN reports, two anti-fossil fuel protestors from Just Stop Oil entered London’s National Gallery and doused the masterwork with two full cans of Campbell’s tomato soup (which seems more Andy Warhol’s style). They then proceeded to glue themselves to the wall beneath the painting. The Gallery issued a statement, noting that while there was some “minor damage” to the frame, the painting itself—which is worth an estimated $84.2 million—was not harmed, due to it being glazed.
Below are 15 facts you might not have otherwise known about the famed work of art.
1. Sunflowers is not a single painting.
Sunflowers is comprised of two series of paintings. The first set of four is known as The Paris Sunflowers. These were created when the artist lived with his brother Theo in the City of Light, ahead of moving to Arles in the south of France in 1888. That August, van Gogh began the Arles Sunflowers while renting four rooms in a yellow house.
2. It’s very easy to distinguish the two sets from one another.
The Arles Sunflowers are posed in vases, poking skyward; the Paris series presents the flowers lying on the ground.
3. The Arles Sunflowers were painted for Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gauguin, the French Post-Impressionist painter, was an admired friend and colleague of van Gogh’s. Through letters, the pair planned for Gauguin to visit Arles in October of 1888 so that the two artists might work alongside each other. Ahead of Gauguin’s arrival, van Gogh decided he would decorate the Yellow House with paintings to please his guest. The first wave was of sunflowers.
4. Gauguin was impressed.
Gauguin declared Sunflowers “a perfect example of the style that was completely Vincent.” After two months in Arles, Gauguin asked if he could trade one of his pieces for one of van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
5. Van Gogh loved working on Sunflowers.
Though he suffered from mental illness and crippling self-doubt, the painter found joy in creating the Arles Sunflowers. In August of 1888, he wrote to his beloved brother Theo, “I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I'm at is the painting of some sunflowers.”
6. He initially planned to create 12 sunflower paintings in Arles.
In the same letter to Theo, Vincent wrote, “If I carry out this idea, there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly.”
Van Gogh finished four that month. Then in January of 1889, he revisited the subject with three paintings known as The Repetitions, because they were copies of his third and fourth versions from his August series.
7. There are only five known Arles Sunflowers today.
Between his initial version and their repetitions, by 1889, there were seven Arles Sunflowers. However, over the years, two have been lost to the public. The first of the initial versions was sold into a private collection. The second was destroyed by fire during World War II. So when museums refer to the Arles Sunflowers, they are referencing the third and fourth of the initial version, and the three Repetitions.
8. The Arles Sunflowers are part of a wider collection of works.
Instead of creating a dozen panels of sunflowers, van Gogh followed his Sunflowers with a string of portraits, including Joseph Roulin (The Postmaster), Patience Escalier (The Old Peasant), and Paul-Eugène Milliet (The Lover).
Next came a series that came to be known as Toiles de 30-Décoration. This wave of pieces, which were all painted on size 30 canvases, featured a variety of topics, including gardens, bedrooms, portraits, and a depiction of the yellow house itself. This collection came to be known as “Décoration for the Yellow House.” Most were made before van Gogh’s breakdown that winter, during which he infamously mutilated his ear.
9. Van Gogh intended his Arles Sunflowers to be part of a triptych.
In January of 1889, van Gogh wrote to Theo, explaining how he felt the third and fourth Sunflowers from Arles would brilliantly frame his first repetition of Berceuse, a portrait of a woman in a rocking chair. He wrote, “I picture to myself these same canvases between those of the sunflowers, which would thus form torches or candelabra beside them.” He provided a sketch of what he had in mind, and would later execute it in his display at the 1890 art show Les XX.
10. Sunflowers used groundbreaking color.
Art critics still marvel at the detail and depth van Gogh drew out of layering shades of yellow. But, as the BBC noted, such colors were new to painters: “These series of paintings were made possible by the innovations in manufactured pigments in the 19th century. Without the vibrancy of the new colors, such as chrome yellow, van Gogh may never have achieved the intensity of Sunflowers.” Alternately, without an artist like van Gogh, these colors may have never had their potential fulfilled.
11. Van Gogh did not sell a single one of his Sunflowers.
In his lifetime, van Gogh only sold one self-portrait plus The Red Vineyard at Arles, which was part of Décoration for the Yellow House. Following his death on July 29, 1890, all of his Sunflowers went to Theo.
12. Sunflowers are among the artist’s most popular paintings.
Sunflowers are displayed all over the globe. Paintings from the Paris series can be found in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Switzerland’s Museum of Fine Arts Bern, and the Netherlands’s Kröller-Müller Museum. One of the initial Arles series can be found in London’s National Gallery, the other in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek. The Repetitions are on display in the Van Gogh Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Tokyo’s SOMPO Museum of Art.
13. In 2014, museums collaborated to bring Sunflowers together.
The advantage to van Gogh’s Sunflowers being scattered is that they are accessible to people across the world. The downside, however, is that few people will ever get to see them as a collection, as intended. But in 2014, two of these paintings were wrangled for a special exhibition in London. The Van Gogh Museum lent their Repetitions piece to the National Gallery for the first reunion of the pieces in nearly 60 years.
14. There are major obstacles to exhibiting Sunflowers together.
“There are two reasons,” van Gogh expert Martin Bailey explained to The Telegraph of the reasons why it’s difficult to show Sunflowers as a series. “First, they are fragile works, and for conservation reasons they either cannot travel at all or are only allowed to in very exceptional circumstances. Secondly, they are probably the most popular paintings in all the galleries that own them, so the owning institutions are very reluctant to allow them to leave.”
15. New technology brought a full collection of Sunflowers to the masses.
In 2017, the National Gallery employed the new streaming technology of Facebook Live to create a “virtual exhibition” that brought together five paintings of the Arles Sunflowers series. The groundbreaking presentation featured expert curators taking turns presenting their Sunflowers to the video-streaming audience, complete with 15-minute lectures. This marked the first time this many Sunflowers were shown together since they left Theo’s home on their way to building van Gogh’s legacy. And from pioneering colors to cutting-edge exhibitions, van Gogh’s Sunflowers came full circle.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.