The past week has seen London heaving under the weight of tourists visiting from across the globe. 17 million people visit London every year, the majority will visit at least one gallery or museum whilst in the capital- with The British Museum and National Gallery taking the top spots. In this series I will explore the most famous works of art currently on display in London’s most popular museums and galleries. Who were the masters behind these masterpieces and why are the pieces so adored even today?
The first work of art is the piece which inspired this series. Walking through the National Gallery earlier this week, I came across a crowd surrounding one of the paintings in the Impressionist galleries. I argue that the impressionists gave us the most commonly known artists among those who don’t study or have an interest in art. Most people could name ‘Van Gogh’, ‘Monet’ or ‘Renoir’ if asked, so I wasn’t taken aback by the people who had amassed around this painting. As I fought closer to the front, I caught a glimpse of the artwork in question. Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. As I continued through the galleries, this painting remained by far the most popular- Even ‘The Ambassadors’ didn’t pull as large a crowd as a simple vase of sunflowers.
The National Gallery holds one of 4 initial sunflower paintings completed in 1888 for Van Gogh’s close friend and fellow artist, Gauguin. The only other piece from the initial series is currently on display in Munich, Germany- with the first in a private collection and second destroyed in a fire during WW2. The sunflowers shot to international fame in 1987 when ‘Still Life: A Vase with 15 Sunflowers’ sold for just under $40million, smashing the world record for the most expensive painting sold at auction by nearly 4 times. The 5 existing sunflower paintings are now estimated to be worth over £100million each.
Van Gogh is the artist which I was taught about the most often during my years in art education- from primary school craft projects to univerisity essays. In fact, I challenge you to find a person in Britain who couldn’t tell you one fact about Van Gogh- whether it be that he chopped off his ear, that he was only acheived international success after his death, or that he actually hated sunflowers. For those who don’t know extensively about the techniques used by Millais or the life of JMW Turner- Van Gogh offers a sense of familiarity, a chance to use their knowledge to inform opinions and judgements.
Since Richard Curtis’ heart-wrenching Doctor Who episode depicting a fictitious period in Van Gogh’s life in which he encounters The Doctor and companion Amy Pond. After falling for Miss Pond, Van Gogh dedicates ‘Sunflowers’ to her, writing ‘For Amy- Vincent’ on the left of the vase. Despite being a work of fiction, it’s never hard to spot the odd Whovian hoping to catch a glimpse of the dedication, and then looking disappointed that it isn’t there.
I honestly believe that it is the simplisity of the paintings that are the main attraction. The subject matter is not complicated or hard to follow and the colours are pleasing to all. For those with the contextual knowledge, Sunflowers offers an insight in to Van Gogh’s mental state and paint application techniques, whilst still remaining assessable to those who simply admire its beautiful qualities.
‘Sunflowers’ is currently on display in room 45 (Van Gogh and Cezanne) at The National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, London.