The Irresistible Allure of Van Gogh's "Vase with Twelve Sunflowers"

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Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, 1888; oil on canvas, 36.2 × 28.7 inches.
Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, 1888; oil on canvas, 36 by 28½ inches.

Michelle Hamilton wrote this essay for the fifth session of our Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program. The session was led by Chuck Reece, co-founder and editor of the Bitter Southerner, and was titled “Where Does Your Work Come From?” He asked the mentees to reflect on what compels them to write, and specifically to write about art. We were impressed and at times moved by the essays, which we’ll be featuring over the coming weeks. 

It’s not the sort of painting that captures your imagination from across the room. It’s quiet and unassuming. In fact, it almost demands that you walk past it too quickly the first time. “Oh, look. Another vaguely interesting floral still life,” and then you move on to something with a little more international renown, perhaps Starry Night or one of the swirling self-portraits of a perturbed-looking ginger. Sooner or later though, you have to go back.
You have to go back to figure out the paint, which, for some reason, you’re remembering more like icing. Maybe it’s how thickly it sits on the canvas, or how choppy it can be, like places where the baker sloppily lifts the smoothing spatula. Maybe it has something to do with how you want to glide your finger over the top like a child with a too-tempting birthday cake, raking up a delicious dollop for yourself.
You have to go back to figure out the colors, because they were somehow simultaneously the brightest and dimmest in the room. That background wall is robin’s egg blue, right? Except where it’s brighter, like the cerulean of a clear sky, or where it’s darker, like the cyan of sea foam. You could say that the leaves are green, but that wouldn’t quite capture the young, fresh color on the fringes of the recent blooms, nor would it describe the hazel of the wilting stems. You don’t even want to try cataloging the riot of yellows, from pale onion skin to burnt gold and back again.
You have to go back to figure out the flowers themselves, because they seem to be blooming and dying all at once. Tight bundles of petals, just starting to unfurl, share a vase with folding, collapsing heaps of has-beens. Some of the full blooms confront you directly, almost proudly, while others shy away and offer only a side profile.
You have to go back to figure out the strange signature veering diagonally down the vase. Each letter was so neatly printed, but then the author chose this awkward angle despite the convenient horizontal guideline just above.
But mostly you have to go back to figure out why you can’t figure out this simple little image. It’s just a vase with a dozen sunflowers, sitting on an unremarkable table in an unremarkable room. Why do each of the open blooms along the top seem to have their own personality? Scanning them feels like searching an old class photo for familiar faces. How is it possible to read so much hope into those fuzzy yellow pom-poms jutting over the lip of the vase, and how are you so sure that touching them would feel like petting a kitten? What is it about that one wilting flower on the lower right that makes you so sad? Something about the bend of its stem makes you want to call your grandparents, just to make sure they know how you love them.
Unfortunately, museums and galleries have closing times, and the world is a busy place, so you can’t linger for too long. On your way back home, you’ll find yourself wondering how that rendering of the bouquet came to be. Van Gogh painted it in his prolific year of 1888, as a gift for Gauguin, but went on to create several reproductions for himself. What does it say about the artist, the man who thought such an image would make a nice house-warming present for a friend, something to decorate an empty wall? And what does it say about you that you wouldn’t mind hanging a reprint in your living room?
Michelle Hamilton is an aspiring arts writer and student, fresh from Athens and the University of Georgia with a BA in history and art history. She is currently continuing her academic studies in pursuit of an MLIS degree, taking frequent study breaks for voracious reading, avid museum-going, and occasional visits to the zoo. A staunch supporter of local artists, Michelle can usually be found on the volunteer staff or among the crowd at art fairs and festivals all over North Georgia.

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