A Virtual Exhibit Unites Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers

The global collaboration features five of the six surviving canvases

Sunflowers 360
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Between 1888 and 1889 while living in the French city of Arles, Vincent van Gogh obsessed about sunflowers. He painted multiple canvases of the bright yellow blossoms arranged in vases. Those works would go on to become some the art world's most iconic pieces, and in 1987, one of the "Sunflowers" paintings set an auction record when it sold for $39.9 million. Until now, however, the paintings have never been exhibited together. But thanks to the internet, Jon Hurdle at The New York Times reports that five "Sunflowers" paintings are being brought together for the first time in a virtual gallery.

According to a press release, The National Gallery in London, Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art in Tokyo have all linked up for the presentation called Sunflowers 360, which is available to view now on Facebook. Beginning at 12:50 EST on Monday, curators will begin a series of five 15 minutes lectures about each painting. Virtual reality technology and computer graphics will make it appear as if the paintings are all in one gallery together. Viewers can either use VR headsets to examine the paintings or get a 360-degree view of the gallery on their computer or mobile screens.

“It’s a fun and engaging way to think about these five paintings that are scattered about the globe, that are unlikely to ever come together in one venue or one exhibition,” Jennifer Thompson, curator of the Facebook Live event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, tells Hurdle. “This is a way for us to take advantage of technology to virtually bring the paintings together, and to have a conversation among curators.”

The exhibit is narrated by the great-grandson of van Gogh’s brother Theo, Willem van Gogh, who remembers seeing one canvas, "15 Sunflowers" hanging in his grandparents home. “Rather like the 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Night Watch,' Van Gogh’s 'Sunflowers' are works of art that continue to intrigue and inspire, perhaps into eternity,” he says in the press release.

Sarah Cascone at artnet News reports that the "Sunflowers" paintings were sold by van Gogh’s sister-in-law Jo Bonger after the artist’s death, and they have not been seen together since. The event brings together the five publicly held canvases. One other is held in a private collection and seventh was destroyed in Japan by American bombing during World War II.

According to the press release, the idea for the virtual gallery came about in 2014, when the Van Gogh Museum loaned its version of Sunflowers to the National Gallery in London, and two versions of the painting were exhibited together. “The excitement we saw three years ago when the London and Amsterdam ‘Sunflowers’ were shown together, especially among young visitors to the National Gallery, convinced us that there is a deep curiosity on the part of the public and scholars alike to understand how this famous series came into being, what the pictures meant to Vincent, and what they mean to us today,” Christopher Riopelle, curator at the National Gallery, says in a press release.

The bright colors of the canvases arguably reflected van Gogh’s hopes at that time. After renting a yellow house in sunny Arles, he painted the sunflowers to decorate the room of Paul Gauguin, a friend and mentor whom he invited to join him. The canvases were heavily influenced by Japanese art, including the flatness of the color with bold contour lines.

According to the National Gallery, van Gogh hoped to start an artist’s colony with Gauguin. But the two men did not get along, and by the end of 1888 Gauguin was gone, van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown and entered an asylum after cutting off part of his own ear. In July, 1890, he shot himself near the heart in a wheat field in Auvers, France, ​dying in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

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