6th June – Sunflowers in art and culture – Twigs Way


“Sunflowers?”  I hear you say, “Oh yes it was Van Gogh who painted all those paintings of sunflowers, wasn’t it?”  Well, yes, this is true but there is so much more to the story of the sunflower and our speaker Twigs Way was keen to tell us about its place across the years  in many cultures.

But first, a word or two about Vincent Van Gogh.  Sunflowers had a special significance for him – yellow was an emblem  of happiness and in Dutch literature the sunflower was a symbol of devotion and loyalty but also represented decay.  Van Gogh painted two series of sunflowers (in French ‘Tournesols’, the first shows them lying on the ground while the second shows the beautiful flowers in a vase, painted when Van Gogh was awaiting the arrival of his friend Paul Gauguin.  One account of Van Gogh’s death tells us that he died beside a stack of his sunflower paintings but another says that he died while painting in wheat fields!  Who knows?

Twigs reminded us that that the Aztecs revered this flower and their nobility wore jewel-laden sunflower symbols.  Renaissance Europe acknowledged the sunflower’s importance –  an 18ft specimen was recorded in Madrid and it became a prized specimen of  the Italian Medici court.  The 16th century English botanist John Gerarde grew sunflowers in his London garden though he was not sure about the flower’s ability to turn towards the sun!  Twigs’ view was that perhaps 16th century London summers were ‘sunless’….

If you have read Ovid you will remember the water nymph Clytie who is abandoned by the sun god Helios (Apollo) and follows his movements so much so that the Greek gods take pity on her and turn her into a sunflower.  Somehow Apollo’s association with the great flower ensured that the sunflower became a symbol of divine right and the rule of kings which is why Van Dyck’s painting of  Charles1 contains large yellow-gold petals.

Who has read Samuel Richardson’s book ‘Pamela” and remembers that  Pamela and Mr Williams agree to communicate by putting letters under a sunflower in the garden?  You can only admire the extent of Twig Way’s research!  Another gem is the fact that Mrs Beeton remarked that sunflowers are good for children…… I couldn’t find the reference myself  but if Twigs mentions it then it must be true!

In the late 19th century  we were told that the Arts and Crafts movements, Impressionists and the Aesthetes almost simultaneously  suddenly became in awe of the sunflower!  Oscar Wilde adopted it as an emblem and stage prop.  When touring America sunflower-shaped fans were available in case the audience became overheated!  Let’s not forget Monet’s painting of gold flowers in a Japanese vase which probably reminded him of his garden at Vetheuil where they lined  the path in blue and white ceramic pots and of course there are still sunflowers at Giverny.  Monet’s friend and fellow horticulturist and painter Cailebotte grew and painted sunflowers.  Later Gustav Klimt produced several beautiful paintings of sunflowers in gardens.

My résumé is unashamedly based on Twig’s remarkable lecture and beautiful  visual representations.

Mary Duff

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