Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ Is No Longer Cleared for Takeoff

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam’s version has been deemed too fragile to travel

Van Gogh Sunflowers
Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has revoked the passport of one of its most beloved paintings, judging the 130-year-old masterpiece “Sunflowers” too fragile to travel, reports van Gogh expert Martin Bailey at The Art Newspaper.

The canvas is one of seven sunflower paintings Vincent van Gogh created in 1888 and 1889 while living in Arles, France. Those paintings are now scattered throughout the world, held by museums in Philadelphia, Munich, London and Tokyo. One is owned by private collector in the United States and has not been seen publicly since 1948. Another canvas was destroyed during the bombing of Japan during World War II.

The Van Gogh Museum’s “Sunflowers” has been undergoing extensive conservation efforts since 2016. As part of the final phase of that process, the painting was taken once again taken to the conservation lab earlier this month. In a press release, officials at the museum explain they concluded during that exercise that while the paint is stable, the work is “very sensitive to vibrations and changes in humidity and temperature.” Rather than risk any temperature fluctuations or undue movements, they made the decision to ground the painting.

According to Bailey’s research, “Sunflowers” journeyed to 79 exhibitions between the end of World War II and 1973 when the Van Gogh Museum was established. After that, the painting was lent out just six times, traveling as far as Chicago and Tokyo. Its last journey, a trip to London, took place in 2014.

“From now on, this highlight of our collection will stay at home in Amsterdam, available for all of our visitors to see every day of the year,” Axel Rueger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, tells Anita Singh at The Telegraph.

The state of the canvas wasn’t the only thing researchers gleamed from the recent conservation work. Using computer analysis of the weave of the fabric, they were able to determine which roll of linen the artist used to produce the painting. Bailey reports that eight other paintings dating to January of 1889 came from the same roll, used soon after van Gogh was released from the hospital for cutting off his own ear. The Amsterdam version is drawn from another in the “Sunflowers” series, which van Gogh had painted from life the previous summer. For this version, he changed the background color and made other minor variations.

They also learned that van Gogh himself painted the yellow piece of wood at the top of the canvas, making it an original part of the composition, not a later addition. Additionally, the analysis sheds some light on conservation techniques used in the past. The team determined that there are multiple layers of varnish that were later added to the painting, which have since gathered dirt and yellowed. The varnish, now bonded with the paint, is impossible to remove.

Some of the paints used by van Gogh that have naturally faded or darkened in the last century have also impacted the brightness and coloration of the painting. Over time, the colors will change even more. While there’s little that can be done to reverse the trend, when the painting goes back on display in late February, the museum will reduce the lights shining on the painting down to 50 lux, one-third the amount previously illuminating it.

While the Amsterdam Sunflowers is no longer cleared for takeoff, others remain travel-ready. Singh of the Telegraph reports the National Gallery in London is planning to send its "Sunflowers" to Tokyo in 2020 to celebrate the XXXII Olympic Summer Games.

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