Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a painting by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine, but – he likes mine better. I don’t agree – only don’t think that I am weakening…I shall go on working and here and there among my work there will be things which will last, but who will be in figure painting what Claude Monet is in landscape? You must feel as I do that such a one will come…. The painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never yet existed.
~Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo. December, 1888.
Monet painted his sunflowers (which I saw last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) as part of a series of floral still lifes that included a total of seven bouquets, all with different flowers, including asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, Jerusalem artichokes, mallows, and red chrysanthemums. Van Gogh had not known of Monet’s sunflower bouquet until his painterly friend saw the piece and informed him of it.
Van Gogh’s humility is what kept him from becoming as pompous as Gauguin; and, his foresight was remarkable in terms of the changing art world. I wonder if he had known that he was the artist of the future, the colorist we’d never before seen? It is more likely that Gauguin would have thought himself the color master of the future.
But Monet: when I look at his bouquet stuffed into a glossy Japanese pot, ostensibly set on an indoor table, my eyes shake from all the movement, the scene is out of focus, and I feel dizzy. It seems as though a window has been left open and the flowers are shuddering from the cool breeze. But this painting is a still life—presumably indoors and absent disturbances. Of course, it is an impressionistic piece and I do love Impressionism, yet this still life doesn’t work for me. It feels distant, aloof, and so unlike van Gogh’s warm and inviting sunflower canvases. Perhaps it is, for me, that no sunflower still life would live up to those painted by the Dutch master colorist himself. A master who received little attention in his time.
I’ll tell you, though, despite the lack of recognition, many artists from van Gogh’s period, and others after van Gogh, were inspired by his work. Lucien Pisarro’s Vincent in Conversation with Félix Fénéon, both Emile Bernard’s and Toulouse Lautrec’s Vincent van Gogh, and Gauguin’s The Painter of Sunflowers were all done in a style similar to van Gogh’s.
The young Egon Schiele, born the year van Gogh died, used van Gogh’s motif to paint elegant, if somewhat tragic looking, sunflowers. Like many of van Gogh’s still lifes, he depicted the flower in its waning glory. Klimt, too, took the sunflower as a motif, set it growing wild in the garden against bright and dazzling backgrounds. He seems to have treated his sunflowers much like van Gogh did in that we see humanity in his work, as if the canvases reflect the artist more than the flower itself.
Van Gogh is the artist who moved us into the future of Postimpressionism. He conceived of the bold strokes and bright hues of the artwork of the late 19th century. Yes, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat helped usher in the art movement, but it was van Gogh—van Gogh of light and swirls, saturated and heavy pigment—who led the charge, and inspired so many others to look at the sunflower, and everything else, in a different way. Here and there, sketching and painting his world into the everlasting.