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  • Russ Ramsey

Vincent's Tells

Today’s Art Wednesday focuses on some of Vincent van Gogh’s signature tells. Most artists have them—melodic phrases, riffs, color spectrums, subject matter, or repeated themes that run through their work. One of Vincent’s is his trademark use of yellow and blue. Another is the sunflower. What are your tells?

Van Gogh, Six Sunflowers, 1888


Vincent was very aware that the sunflower was one of his signatures. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote, “You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.” Every artist has “go to” moves, themes, and riffs.

Van Gogh, Four Withered Sunflowers, 1887


Much has been written about why Vincent used yellow so much, but one reason was because of a new pigment called Chrome Yellow, which is the vibrant yellow we see in his later paintings. It looked like light. Vincent almost always set it against blue.

Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888


Still Life with Roses and Sunflowers (1886) is one of Vincent’s earlier works. He hasn’t yet zeroed in on sunflowers or his signature dominant yellow and blue spectrum. But notice that the sunflowers make an early appearance. This is a painting from an artist finding his way and also his own personal taste.

Van Gogh, Still Life with Roses and Sunflowers, 1886


Vincent wanted to start an artist colony in his home, which he called, “The Yellow House.” Paul Gauguin came to live there with Vincent for a few months in 1888. Vincent knew Gauguin loved sunflowers, so he painted some to decorate his friend’s room. Here is one.

Van Gogh Sunflower of Gauguin’s Room, 1888


Gauguin painted Vincent painting sunflowers. At first, Vincent hated it, but over time his attitude changed. He said of the painting and gesture by Gauguin, “My face has lit up a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.”

Paul Gauguin, Painter of Sunflowers, 1887


Gauguin said of Vincent’s love for yellow, “Oh yes, he loved yellow, this good Vincent, this painter from Holland — those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul, that abhorred the fog, that needed the warmth.”

Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888


To me, Vincent’s yellow and blue set a tension between day and night. The brilliance of his nightscapes (blue) are marked by the light (yellow) that pierces the darkness. Vincent was like this—dark as night but filled with brilliance. What are your tells?

Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888



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