8 Days of Van Gogh’s Flowers, Day 6: Sunflowers
Day 6 of the Flower Show means Day 6 of Van Gogh’s flower paintings! Today, we look at the sunflower, emblem of warmth, light, and hope. All our thanks to Flower Show historian Janet Evans and the wonderful PHS staff.
What says summer more than the sunflower? Belonging to the genus Helianthus, from the Greek helios, meaning ‘sun’ and anthus, meaning ‘flower,’ these plants are grown not only to be enjoyed in our gardens, but also as a commercial crop—sunflower oil is the world’s fourth most heavily produced oil after soy, palm, and rapeseed (canola).
Helianthus consists of annuals and perennials native to the Southwest United States and Central America, and sunflowers are heliotropic—that is, they turn their faces to to follow the sun. In fact, the French word for sunflower is tournesol.
Sunflowers were a favorite subject for Vincent van Gogh. In addition to the Museum’s beloved still life of sunflowers in an earthenware vase, the Van Gogh Up Close exhibition also features this close up of two sunflower heads. It was created while he was living in Paris, a time when he painted several such sunflower studies in meticulous detail. This work was exhibited at the Café du Tambourin in Paris in 1887 and later belonged to Paul Gauguin, who greatly admired van Gogh’s paintings of close-up subjects.
Sunflowers aren’t fussy and are easily grown in full sun with average soil. They should be sown outdoors from seed after the last frost. Because they are tall plants, growing 8 to 10 feet in height, they do better in the back of a border or along a fence. They are attractive to birds and butterflies, and children love to grow them.
You’ll be sure to find vendors in the Philadelphia International Flower Show selling sunflower seeds, so if you’d like to buy a seed package, you’ve come to the right place. Follow instructions on package for how and when to plant the seeds.
Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1887. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Rogers Fund, 1949, 49.41.
8 Days of Van Gogh’s Flowers, Day 5: Roses
It’s a warm, breezy day in Philadelphia, and both the Flower Show and Van Gogh Up Close are in their element. Just look at these roses!
The rose is one of our oldest cultivated flowers, valued for its beauty as well as its utility. We know that roses were grown at least 4,750 years ago in the ancient ‘fertile crescent,’ an area delimited by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in today’s Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. More recently, the Empress Josephine was so passionate about roses that, even while Napoleon was waging war with England, she arranged not only for the blooms to arrive at her estate from her favorite British nursery, but she even gave the nurseryman safe passage to cross enemy lines so he could visit and discuss rose growing with her! A few decades later in 1844, Philadelphia nurseryman (and PHS officer) Robert Buist wrote one of the earliest treatises on roses in America, The Rose Manual.
There are many types of roses: hybrid tea roses, floribundas, shrub roses, climbers, mini roses, old garden roses (heirloom or antique plants), and roses prized for their fragrance. Here, Van Gogh chooses pink roses as his subject matter. He subverts the traditional format of a floral still life, regarding the roses not frontally, but from above. By looking down upon the arrangement, he is able to present the flowers from unexpected angles—you can just barely make out the pot that holds them in the lower right.
If you would like to cultivate your own roses, bring your questions to the Flower Show where many knowledgeable gardeners are on hand. If you’re local, the PHS’s McLean Library can provide you with a list of suggested low maintenance roses for the Delaware Valley.
Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Pink Roses, 1890. Oil on canvas. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
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