They are the rock stars of the art world but what is the story behind the sunflowers?

Van Gogh’s descent into madness went hand-in-hand with an astonishing outpouring of creativity that saw him paint more than 300 works of art, including the septet of sunflower paintings. James Rampton reports

Friday 11 June 2021 00:01
<p>Sunflowers: the world’s most instantly recognisable work of art</p>

Sunflowers: the world’s most instantly recognisable work of art

Vincent van Gogh's stunning cycle of seven sunflower paintings has attained a level of global celebrity that the artist himself could never have dreamt of during his short, unhappy life, when he struggled to make ends meet and sold just one picture (The Red Vineyard at Arles, since you ask). In the years after his death in 1890, these pictures have helped seal his reputation as one of the greatest painters to have ever graced this planet. They are regularly voted the most popular works of art in the world. Only the Mona Lisa comes close.

Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery, where a version of Van Gogh's sunflowers is one of the best loved works, says: “Sunflowers is the rock star painting in our collection, where merely being in its presence constitutes some kind of validation – 'I was there'. For many people, I think, that's very important.”

But what's so special about the sunflowers? Why, 133 years after they were painted, do these apparently simple depictions of a vase of brightly coloured flowers still compel audiences all over the world? Why are they such rock stars?

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