Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, September 16, 2019

After the Fire

Shortly before eight p.m. Notre Dame's iconic wooden
spire toppled into the attic inferno below.
A little over six years ago I wrote detailing our visit to Notre Dame de Paris. A lot has happened since then. A smoke alarm alerted a fire security employee who was monitoring the system in a building beside the cathedral at 6:18 p.m. on April 15, 2019. That employee then rang a security guard who was standing near the altar and told him to check it out. The guard reported that there was no fire. The guard had gone to the wrong part of the cathedral—a connected building called the sacristy. The security employee called his boss rather than the fire department, who did not pick up initially. When his boss called back, they realized what was happening and told the security guard to immediately look at the attic of the main cathedral—where by then, the fire was burning out of control. The mix-up has since produced a bitter round of finger-pointing over who was responsible for allowing the fire to rage unchecked for so long.
Notre Dame interior--before                           and after the fire               
The fire was devastating, but it could have been much worse. Firefighters were in a life-threatening race against time to stop the cathedral from collapsing, which ended with the loss of its steeple and wooden structure but the preservation of its towers, main structure, famous stained-glass windows, and many of the world-renowned treasures inside. An important collection of artwork and Christian relics stored in and around Notre Dame also faced danger from the flames. Firefighters and other emergency responders formed a human chain and entered the building to save what holy relics they could. Thanks to the bravery of Paris firefighters, and in no small part that of the cathedral staff, many of the most vital works of art and artifacts were saved from the fire. That includes the crown of thorns—-believed by some to have been worn by Jesus during his crucifixion—-and the tunic of St. Louis. Some of these and other works have been moved to the Louvre, where they are expected to be repaired or restored, if necessary.
Some of the items saved from the fire.
In the stunned aftermath of the Notre-Dame blaze French firefighters and experts ventured into the devastated cathedral on Tuesday morning to survey what remained. They finally declared—-to the relief of millions—-that the structure of the 859-year cathedral had been saved, and that firefighters had rescued some of the most precious relics even while the world watched aghast at flames leaping from the Medieval icon. There was a sense of disbelief among Parisians on Tuesday morning that Notre-Dame had been so vulnerable to devastation, after withstanding nearly a millennium of epic upheavals, including the French Revolution, and just in the past century alone, two world wars and the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Notre Dame's high altar after the fire.
However, those who have for years tracked the declining condition of the cathedral wondered whether the fire might have been far less severe had they launched major renovations years ago—an option that cash-strapped Notre-Dame had been unable to do. Notre-Dame began a €150-million ($170 million) construction project last year, in an effort to restore and upgrade the wooden roof and spire, which were considered to be the most urgently needed work. There was fire proofing everywhere, but it was not enough. The restoration of the cathedral had been taking place all along the years, since the 19th century. But it would have been better had they started this program much earlier. It was in the upper roof portion, where construction was ongoing, that the fire appears to have started. Some experts have speculated that the initial cause might have been a spark from a welder’s torch, although there is no proof for their theory. The fire appeared to smolder for a while before turning into a blaze. French officials have ruled out any criminal act.
In what was the most shocking moment of the fire, the delicate 300-foot spire, which dated back more than 200 years, (seen here before the fire) tilted to one side and then snapped off almost like a twig (top photo).
What was lost? Two-thirds of the roof collapsed in the fire, and in the process also destroying some of the centuries-old statues of saints that were perched on the spire. Part of the nave and the choir are also gone. The most severely damaged were the vaults of the ceiling (below), which Medieval architects had constructed from about 5,000 oak trees. Until that Monday night, this feat of Medieval engineering and architecture had been one of the finest examples of Gothic construction still standing. The original spire was lost in 1792, shortly before the French Revolution. At the time, fiercely anti-clerical crowds laid siege to the cathedral, ransacking its irreligious artworks. The spire destroyed on Monday night dated to the mid-19th century, when a new spire was erected. Making matters worse, the spire was very delicate and it was made of wood.
Notre Dame's ceiling vault frescoes--damage beyond repair.
Many of the grand paintings in the cathedral were too difficult to rescue while firefighters battled the blaze. France’s Minister of Culture told reporters that the paintings would be removed and transported to the Louvre Museum a short distance from the cathedral. There, they would be treated for water and smoke damage, and stored for a time when Notre Dame might finally be reopened. There were only sketchy details on Tuesday morning of the state of many treasures. Initially it was believed that Notre-Dame’s famous Rose Windows and other stain glass windows were lost (below). As it turned out, only one collapsed. However, the fate of a fragment of the Holy Cross and Nail is not known.
there is a waiting list of more than two years of organists wanting to play it.
Each pipe was individually cleaned during a 2013 refurbishment.
The impressive organ (above) dating to the 1730s and boasting an estimated 8,000 pipes did not burn and is intact, but nobody knows yet whether it was damaged by the heat or water. “The organ is a very fragile instrument,” The organ is said to have “incredible” sound, with “very rich colors.”
Most of the stained glass windows were only slightly damaged in the fire.
What lies ahead is a mammoth salvage and rebuilding effort. So far, no one can say how long that might take, nor how many hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, might be required. Ironically, the immense loss from the fire, and the sense of grief that settled over Paris, prompted huge private donations within hours—the kinds of donations for which Notre-Dame officials had appealed for years, with no luck. The family of French billionaire François Pinaud pledged €100 million (about $113 million) to rebuild the cathedral. Not to be outdone, Bernard Arnaud, who heads the luxury group LVMH, pledged €200 million (about $226 million). The French oil giant Total said it would donate €100 million. Conspicuously absent is any pledge of funds from the Vatican. Hundreds of regular Parisians went online to donate small amounts to crowdfunding efforts that sprang up as the fire raged on Monday night.
Much of the sculpture beneath the collapsed roof was either destroyed or heavily damaged.
Even so, the French government had hesitated to commit serious funds for Notre-Dame’s restoration, in part because of the laws imposing strict secular government limits on funding for churches. An annual maintenance budget from the government of €2 million (about $2.26 million) covered the bare basics. Notre-Dame draws a giant 13 million tourists a year, or about 13,000 a day—more than the Eiffel Tower does. Yet it is forbidden under law from charging an entrance fee, since places of worship are required to be open to all, at any time. Yet even a modest fee, would have gone a long way toward solving their ongoing funding crisis. Officials noted that last year, a group of preservationists raised about $2 million in the U.S. alone. It seems Americans are the most passionate non-French people about the cathedral. Sociologist have noted that there is a tradition of philanthropy in the U.S. which does not exist in France.
One of the ceiling frescoes heavily damaged or destroyed.
Some five to ten per cent of the artwork has probably been destroyed (above). The cathedral was home to dozens of paintings, including a series of 76 pieces depicting the Acts of the Apostles, and a Medieval image of the Virgin Mary by Jean Jouvenet. Surprisingly the smaller paintings appear to be unaffected. However, further inspection is needed to confirm if the smoke from the fire, or the water used to quell it, did any damage to the paint. Fortunately, 16 religious statues got a lucky escape from Monday’s blaze. Just four days before the fire, they were removed from the top of Notre Dame for the first time in over a century to be taken for cleaning. The removal was part of a restoration of the cathedral’s towering spire, now gone. The 3-meter-tall copper statues represent the 12 apostles and four evangelists. The cathedral’s roof was the most enduring loss. It was built using a lattice of giant beams cut from trees in the primeval forests of the 12th and 13th centuries. Experts say France no longer has trees big enough to replace the ancient wooden beams that burned in the fire. Thus the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire. Restoration work will have to use new technology to rebuild the roof. Notre Dame and the French nation have dodged a complete disaster, but one that could largely have been avoided had the kind of money now pouring in for restoration and rebuilding been available for ongoing maintenance. In another twist of irony, the very pre-fire restoration work on the roof and attic may have been responsible for the fire.
Notre Dame de Paris today.


Monday, September 9, 2019

Peeta (Manuel Di Rita)

Draw the Line, 2016, Campobasso, Italy,  Peeta's works demonstrate the power of
murals to distort or destroy architecture.
When people today think about painters, they usually bring to mind and artist wearing an apron or smock, standing (or sitting) before their easel knocking out modest sized works seldom less than ten inches by fourteen inches and ranging upwards from that to no more than 48 inches square. And, for the most part, this mental image is accurate. The artists are using standard sizes both for pre-stretched canvases as well as frames, all of which would not look out of place on the walls of most homes. Only the most daring and financially secure painters go beyond that to create works only an art museum could handle (or afford). Yet, from the beginning, artists have also painted on cave walls; or decorated stone buildings; or the ceilings of churches or plastered walls of the well-to-do. Artists long ago came to realize that the larger their paintings, the more likely they and their art would stand apart from the crowd. This realization paved the way for the muralist painting walls or, indeed, the entire wall of a building (street art). These murals were sometimes just a step or two above common graffiti.
The Big Picture Festival, 2019, Frankston, Austria, Peeta
Over the years, despite the enormous size of their work, even muralists found their road to fame and fortune becoming as crowded as an LA. freeway parking lot. In order to gain much recognition, like their studio-bound colleagues, muralists needed something really special as to style and content to gain the free advertising that a newspaper article, magazine interview, or TV news segment has to offer. The Italian muralist known as Peeta (real name, Manuel Di Rita) seems to have discovered the fast lane with works such as the surreal illusions seen above and below.
Almanac, Barcelona, Peeta
Peeta is a resident of Venice, Italy. He's been painting graffiti since 1993, but more recently has really upped his game. A member of Padova-based EAD crew and New York City-based FX and RWK crews, Peeta also works on canvas and with actual 3D sculpture in PVC, bronze, acrylic resin and fiberglass. His experience with sculptural media really shows in his newest murals, which take the familiar forms of letter-based street art and manipulate them into abstractive creations. Peeta combines elements of graffiti and abstract art to paint murals that appear to morph and dissolve architectural structures. Abstract shapes swirl around and cut into walls to form M.C. Escher-like scenes that play tricks on the eyes and change depending on the viewing angle.
Mannheim, Germany, Peeta
For the 2019 Stadt. Wand. Kunst mural project (above), Peeta painted a geometrical design onto a building on a street corner in Mannheim, Germany. Using sharp lines, curved forms, and different shades of blue, white, and grey, Peeta visually altered the structure’s edge and created a new impossible façade. As with much of his other work, the limited color palette of the mural helps to sell the illusion and contrast the piece against the surrounding architecture. Peeta created this latest mural for the HKWALLS festival (below). The piece occupies a giant façade on a busy Hong Kong intersection above the Golden Computer Arcade and draws its color for neighboring buildings and signs.
Depending upon the distance between the mural and the viewer, Peeta's HKWalls mural in Hong Kong competes quite favorably juxtaposed against the busy, colorful architecture surrounding it.
Metaphorically, Peeta neutralizes preconceptions and urges the emergence of new perspectives. Anamorphism totally embodies this intent, which is always pivotal in his productions. He attempts to reveal the deceptiveness of human perception and the fallacy of narrow and fixed points of view through visual tricks. Proceeding from the attempt to confer a three-dimensional semblance on a pictorial representation, his abstract illusions ultimately reveal their will to deceive. Constantly running in parallel with his murals and painting activity, the role of sculpture comes to be essential for Peeta's overall production. It represents a direct contact with three-dimensionality in order to understand the rules of light and shadows and to reproduce them.
Whether working on canvas on walls, or with sculpture,
Peeta's designs all relate to one another.
Peeta utilizes professional 3D design software to design PVC sculptures. That allows him to have a 3D view of the sculpture and, at the same time, virtually cut out all of its different surfaces and consider them on a 2D plane. Subsequently, he cuts the PVC plates and assembles them together. The last step involves coating the PVC surface with a polyester layer to mask imperfections resulting from the building process and to impart singularity to the structure, rather than a collage of components.
Peeta often works his illusionary miracles in tightly confined spaces.
When painting on walls, Peeta aims to always to create a dialogue with the structural and cultural parameters of the surrounding context, either architectural or not. The Italian artist transforms static buildings into visually-striking optical illusions, by painting abstract shapes onto them. The artist paints murals that appear to be dissolving, morphing and ever-changing as the illusions depend on the viewing angle. While technological sleights of hand grow more and more sophisticated, it is important to remember that sometimes paint, pencil, and sunlight are all that are needed to create transformative works of art.
Without Frontiers Festival, Mantova, Italy, 2018, Peeta
Peeta's work is best suited for corners, (above) where the artist is able to render flat planes and deep visual fields of shape and color that trick your eye into forgetting that these works are layered on top of everyday buildings and spaces. Working both on canvas and on buildings, Peeta is able to dematerialize perspective views of buildings through graphic, colorful, and explosive arrangements that create their own environmental and visual qualities. These paintings, which Peeta dubs "anamorphic works," are inspired by abstracted calligraphy and stem from the artist's younger days as a graffiti artist. Peeta explains that "Anamorphism totally embodies the intent, always pivotal in my production, to reveal the deceptiveness of human perception, the fallacy of narrow and fixed points of view through visual tricks which, proceeding from the attempt to confer a three-dimensional semblance on a pictorial representation, ultimately reveal their will to deceive.
Square 23, Pump up the Volumes, Peeta, Turin, Italy, 2016
Sometimes Peeta's murals seem to jut outward
from their host building.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Planning an Art Studio

While perhaps a bit "over the top" insofar as interior décor is concerned, it is a reasonably roomy, pleasant, well-lit, exciting workspace, probably that of some type of designer.
Before a would-be artist paints his or her first work of art, there is one, all-important, creative effort which they almost always encounter. They must first carve out from their day-to-day environment a place to work. In the beginning it is very often a temporary workplace, the kitchen table, corner in a bedroom, a few seldom used square feet out in the garage or attic, maybe even a dark, damp unused corner in their basement (an art dungeon). Whatever the case, they are creating their first art studio. Moreover this creative act is a is often a smatter of expediency with little or no forethought or planning. My point is, don't for a moment think this first, makeshift "studio" is of little consequence in producing art. A cramped space, poor lighting, an unstable work surface, noisy distractions, and a lack of some degree of permanence, even a lack of heat (or cooling) can turn what would otherwise be an enjoyable creative experience into frustrating drudgery. If that's the case, it's nearly always reflected in the artist's work.
A far cry from my earlier studios, but no less messy and cluttered.
First let me begin by saying that I'm not an "expert" as to art studio design. In my lifetime I've carved out from our modest living spaces, exactly three private art studios. The first two were spare bedrooms in mobile homes. The first was approximately 8 feet by 9 feet with barely room for a small drawing table, an aluminum easel, a kitchen chair, an old chest-of-drawers, and a closet. The lighting was barely adequate--a single window, an overhead light, and an adjustable "elbow" desk light. The second studio was slightly larger and a good deal more attractive. I mounted a large, leftover piece of mottled orange and brown shag carpeting on one wall to serve as a lively focal point. By that time I'd moved up to an ordinary, swivel office chair with wheels. My student-size drawing table served to hold my palette pad. (I've always been one to sit while painting.) My current studio (above), such as it is, has served my needs for some forty years. It boasts about twice the space of the first two studios, and includes a desk, another for a computer, file cabinet, built-in storage space, recessed lighting, and room for a large, professional drawing table. (I still use the old drawing table upon which to rest my palette.) And though I now work our of a finished basement, my studio has a six-foot sliding glass door looking out onto a rear patio.

In most cases, the size of an artist's studio tends to grow as the artist
becomes more prolific and financially successful.
Creating within the comfort of your own home can sometimes bring up a dilemma of where to put your home art studio and how to decorate it. Surely you need one, because your canvases and easels can’t just take up space in your living room, but how to make the best of the limited space? Your very own art studio is a sacred sanctuary, a creative space where artistic ideas come to life. As such, size matters. The square footage of a home studio depends first the size of the space available, the customary size of your artwork, the art medium you employ, the size of your comfort zone, and (unfortunately, the size your bank account. Although studios come in virtually all sized, I've depicted (above) three sizes--small, medium. and large. My studio I'd class as medium-sized. When called upon to do extra large pieces I move to the family room or even to our three-car garage (we have only two cars).

Obviously a man's studio--no nonsense, nothing fancy, just a large, uncluttered workspace with abroad expanse of wall for large works, a; high ceiling allowing for tall windows and a generous amount of storage space beneath them.
I tend to envy the artist having the octopus-like
adjustable light in his studio. I find myself wonder- 
ing. if it was homemade or purchased on eBay.
The second most important consideration in studio design is lighting. I've always felt that the traditional demand for large windows allowing a nor-thern light to be overblown. But once more, the factor of natural light depends upon the artists' working habits and style. I've always used pri-marily photos as source mat-erial so obviously, natural light is less important in my studio (the large, sliding glass door faces south). However, if one largely ignores natural light then the size, type, and place-ment of light fixtures becomes more and more important. And whether natural or artificial, light must be controlled, either by dimmer switches or blinds.

A prime example of a large studio utilizing "convenience clusters."

Style and comfort in a small,
carefully designed space
probably that of a female artist.
Third, an artist's studio must be carefully ar-ranged (especially if small) to maximize the work-space. More often than not, this "arrangement" is largely a matter of trial and error, which is okay if the space is small or exceedingly large. With a small space furniture arrangement will tend to be such as to offer no real alternates. And with a large studio it makes little difference as to exact placement other than the fact that artists tend to create "convenience clusters," (above) depend-ing upon the various stages a canvas undergoes from stretching to framing.

Once you've made the decisions as to size, medium, lighting, and furnishing (and their ar-rangement in the studio, there are a number of seemingly less important factors to consider. The first of these is storage space (below). Person-ally, I chose custom-made cabinets with doors and drawers (to disguise your disorganized clut-ter. Then over a generous expanse of working counterspace, I added a long expanse of shelves for art books, photos, keepsakes, and various souvenirs from our extensive travels to Europe and the Mediterranean (the cradle of Western civilization and art in particular). Such reference materials straight from the source museum or cultural landmarks) have often proved invaluable both is my paintings and more recently my new career as a blogger and published author (Art THINK available at right from Amazon or in e-book formats from

I love this one, most likely the studio of a fabric or fashion designer with a
reminder on the back wall of the most import activity in any art studio.
In addition to all this one must place carefully any exceptional needs dictated by the artist's chosen medium. Ceramics would, for example, require one or more large sinks with serviceable traps beneath them to keep clay from stopping up the drain. Most studios today come outfitted with a desk and a computer stand complete with digital drawing tablet if the artist plans to create CGI artwork. As seen above, a fashion or fabric designer would need large, "thum-btackable" display space, especially if he or she sells from their home studio. Likewise a teaching artist would need ample workspaces for their students as seen below.
The artist/instructor Kaylay apparently teaches up to a dozen or
more from her combination studio/classroom.

We can't all be neatniks. We must also consider the
studio of a free spirit. It makes me  cringe just to look at it.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Owl Art

Three Owls, Michael Dumas
More than forty years ago now, back when my wife and I were still doing local arts and crafts shows, among the exhibitors was a taxidermist displaying his craft. He expressed a desire to have one of my paintings but, as is so often the case, the income from his craft did not afford him the luxury of collecting art. He did suggest, however trading two or three of his mounted pieces for the painting. At the time (and probably still today), bartering among various artists and artisans was much more common than many might guess. To cut to the chase I acquired a mounted mallard, a squirrel, and a barn owl. Although I've painted virtually every animal on God's green earth, that trade resulted in my one and only venture into the ancient art of painting owls (below, right). I also used the mounted wildlife I acquired as models in a junior high drawing unit. Later, as it sat high on a shelf in my studio, our cat thought the bird looked so realistic he attacked it, ripping off one or more wings.
A Snow Owl of paper and wood by Zack Mclaughlin
Copyright, Jim Lane
How Now Brown Owl, 1978, Jim Lane
In my research into owl art I encountered hundreds of painters with far more skill and experience than I. Michael Dumas' Three Owls (top) for example. My own painting of an owl depicts one of two families of owls. Mine is a Barn Owl while most other owls belong to the Strigidae family. Owls are the oldest living birds, their origin having been traced back to 60 million years ago. They have been featured in almost all ancient mythologies. The oldest specimens found show that the bird has not changed much, perhaps due to the fitness of its features as a successful bird of prey. Its capability of night vision, silent flight, acute hearing, strong claws, and excellent plumage con-tributes to its survival skills. Only a few cave drawings have been found relating to birds, and the owl is one of them.

The owls of John Pusater. The third image (just above) illustrates one of the owl's strangest attributes, the ability to swivel its heads up to 270 degrees
Owls invite the art of artists from young school children up through that of rank amateurs and finally the professionals such as the watercolor work of John Pusater (below). In all likelihood, the reason the owl is so popular at all levels of the art world comes down to the fact that the frontal view is a broad face with two circles (the eyes) and a triangle (the beak). Add some highly prominent eyebrows and you have an essence much like the uppermost image above. Switching to a profile view challenges the artists' drawing skills to a greater degree and is less commonly seen. In choosing examples here I've tried to avoid the tiresome, highly symmetrical frontal view. The video below provides insight and instruction as to the drawing of an owl.

What a cat is to the mouse in cities, an owl is to them in a rural environment. Owls keep the population of mice, rats, and rabbits under control. Over past centuries down through to the present, owls are the most-sought-after birds by sorcerers, tribal medicine men, bird watchers, artists, environmentalists, and those who write mythologies. All of these people know about owls, but no one (other than Harry Potter) wishes to keep them as pets. Owls are found all over the world, but they like to keep themselves aloof and out of the sight of human beings in that they are nocturnal birds with an inherent liking for deserted places. The fifteenth century Netherlandish painter, Hieronymus Bosch, was probably the first painter in the history of European art to gravitate to this wise old bird of prey as seen in two details from his famous 1504 painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The upper image (below) depicts a pygmy owl while the lower image is that of a giant Barn owl. Why all the owls? They seem like very nearly frivolous afterthoughts, working as they do in the dark places, windows, tree branches, and margins of his paintings. Despite their marginalized presence in many of Bosch's works, they still manage to convey a touch of sensitivity, intimacy, and humor--as though their tiny presence somehow supervised the goings-on in the paintings.

One could say the owl is Bosch's signature motif, its absence in a
Bosch painting is far more notable than its presence.
Barn Owl Chick, painted bronze, Nick Bibby
In the realm of modern day iconography the owl is often used to denote love as in "Owl Always Love You." In addition to its more common attribute of wisdom. This type of sent-imental work such as that of Dann-e, Owl Love (below) has a tendency toward being over-ly sweet or "cutesy." Likewise the same is true of artists' love of baby animals, in this case fuzzy little owlets. Although it would seem not to be an ob-vious choice as subject mat-ter for sculptors, Nick Bibby's life-size Barn Owl Chick, cast in painted bronze (right) dem-onstrates otherwise.

Owl Love, Dann-e

Watercolor seems to be quite adept in rendering the delicate
qualities of owl chicks.
Other sculptors have taken to painting rounded "pebbles" of various sizes to depict owls such as those of Cindy Thomas (left). (I wonder how they ever learned to fly.) And finally, what would a discourse on owl art be without mention of the abstractionists' contributions? Just below we see the wildly colorful flat design owl images in contrast with the near-colorless, and somewhat cubistic interpretation of this nocturnal bird titled Owls with Black and White Abstract by Donald Wood?

Cindy Thomas 'heavyweight owls

Lower image: Owls with Black and White Abstract by Donald Woods
Just what we need, a sexy Barn Owl.


Monday, August 19, 2019

Van Gogh's Sunflowers

Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed, August--October 1887, Vincent van Gogh
Have you ever noticed that some artists often paint the same subject again and again sometimes in nearly identical versions? There are probably several different reasons for this but usually it's because they've found a subject that sells and therefore want to "milk" it for all it's worth. I must confess that I've been guilty of doing this. Years ago when I was still doing art fairs I found the small paintings of cats (especially kittens) were moving at a very gratifying pace. At times, it was hard to keep a half-dozen or so of them in stock. Likewise I once painted three identical rural farmhouse sunsets but in three different formats--square, horizontal, and vertical. All three sold almost before the paint was dry. Monet had his waterlilies; Degas, his ballerinas; Renoir, his bathers; and van Gogh his sunflowers. I don't know about the others but van Gogh's many sunflower paintings had nothing at all to do with their sales. Their story is a bit more complicated than that. So, what was behind van Gogh's near obsession with these towering giants?

Painter of Sunflowers (left) by Paul Gauguin, and
Portrait of Gauguin (right), December, 1888, by van Gogh.
Most artists in painting flowers like to depict them neatly arranged at their peak of perfection. But, as Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (top, painted between August and October of 1887) suggests, van Gogh's fascination with this subject seems to indicate a much deeper involvement. In late 1887, as a struggling artist living in Paris, Vincent hung dozens of paintings on the walls of the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet in Paris. Above the long tables where low-income Parisians went to eat from a simple, set menu, works by Van Gogh, as well as those of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and other avant-garde artists decorated the establishment. The makeshift hanging was short-lived and received little fanfare. According to Bernard, Van Gogh quarreled with the owner and eventually loaded all his paintings onto a hand cart and took off. However, the exhibition had made a mark on one painter, at least. When Paul Gauguin came to look at the works, his eyes were drawn to a few of Van Gogh’s oil studies, especially, his close-up still-lifes of sunflower heads, their wide seed-cores velvety-looking in texture and their crowns of wilted petals like dancing flames. He requested two of the paintings. Van Gogh traded them for a single work by his Symbolist colleague.
The Yellow House, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

The street corner in Arles today where
once stood Van Gogh's rented yellow house.
It was destroyed by
bombing during WW II.
From this little episode, we might gather that van Gogh was so starved for the attention and respect of his fellow artists that even the slightest indication of admiration was enough to set his hand to painting between seven and eleven different sunflower paint-ings (depend-ing upon the source). However, there was more to it than one artist's critical approval of his work. Albeit some of them were intended to impress Gau-guin, while others van Gogh painted to adorn his bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles (above). There the two artists spent two months together in the fall of 1888. Van Gogh hoped to start an artists colony in Arles along with his newfound friend.

Gauguin eventually accepted van Gogh's invitation after funding for transportation and expenses was pro-vided by Vincent's brother, Theo van Gogh. However Gauguin only stayed for two months as the two often quarreled, climaxing with the famous incident in which van Gogh severed his left ear with a razor after an argument with Gauguin. What followed was a particularly dark period for the famously unstable artist. Van Gogh spent time in an asylum. During his stay in the hospital, he longed for the countryside of his upbringing in the rural Netherlands. The sunflower, which Van Gogh once saw as merely decorative, became something almost sacred, a symbol that represented light itself, an ideal of an honest life lived in nature. Van Gogh's paintings, he wrote to his sister in 1890, were “almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflowers,” an image that brought him comfort and familiarity. We might imagine, that they had a certain vital glow and form that could raise his spirits in troubled times.
Fourteen Sunflowers (left),  and Fifteen Sunflowers (right), 1888, Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh painted seven versions of his glorious sunflowers in a vase. One, the seventh in the series, was destroyed by a nuclear bomb in Japan during the war. They make up the most famous (and valuable) series of pictures in the history of art. In a staggering burst of creative energy, culminating in an agonizing mental breakdown, Vincent van Gogh produced a series of paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase. The pictures are now scattered to museums all over the world. One has gone unseen in public since 1948, residing the private collection of an unknown millionaire, revealed only to his closest friends. Five others are in museums in Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Tokyo (the latter bought for a world-record £25-million in 1987).

Sunflowers Gone to Seed, 1887, watercolor study by Vincent van Gogh

There are a few things that are really striking about the sunflower paintings, especially the ones van Gogh did in Arles. First, his use of color is extraordinary. We don’t see traditional shading, but unmodulated, bright pigment. The colors in Van Gogh’s paintings seem to sing. Second, the way he rendered the sunflowers, table, and vase are quite innovative for their time. The “table” is basically a flat field of paint. The same thing is true with the vase, which has its roundness suggested, but not defined. Everything sits on the surface of the picture plane, rather than having the illusion of space that we see in traditional Western painting. Van Gogh was fascinated by Japanese art, and the way in which Japanese printmakers had a different conception of space in their art. He took this inspiration and developed his own, unique approach. Third, Van Gogh didn’t make physically flat paintings. He used paint as texture in some fascinating ways--both in the background and in the sunflowers themselves. The petals and other forms are articulated in a way that mimics their actual forms and gives them an amazing sense of vitality.

Detailed closeup of a van Gogh sunflower.
At the age of 35, van Gogh was less than two years from death. His career as an artist was an unmitigated failure, his excitement at painting mingled with disappointment, sadness and self-destructive mania. Before turning to painting, he had been an art dealer and teacher in England (in Brixton, Ramsgate and Isleworth), a bookseller in Holland, and a missionary in Belgium. Those around him despaired of his prospects almost as much as he despaired of them himself. In a letter, van Gogh angrily reported that his family wanted him to become a carpenter, accountant, or baker. In any case, the prospects of his being a world-famous artist seemed remote. His romantic life fared no better. When he proposed to the daughter of his Brixton landlady, she refused because she was already engaged to a former lodger.

Sunflowers, First Version,
Vincent van Gogh.

The second version.

Van Gogh painted seven versions of his glor-ious sunflowers in a vase. One, the seventh in the series, was destroyed by an Allied bomb in Japan. They make up the most famous (and valuable) series of pictures in the history of art. In a staggering burst of creative energy, culminating in an agonizing mental breakdown, Vincent van Gogh produced a series of paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase. The pictures are now scattered to museums all over the world. One, unseen in public since 1948, is in the private collection of an unknown millionaire, revealed only to his closest friends. Five others are in museums in Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Tokyo (the latter bought for a world-record £25-million in 1987).

Sunflowers,  third version,
Vincent van Gogh

The fourth version

However, van Gogh didn’t just have an exceptional talent. He was also an astonishingly fast painter. The first four sunflower pictures were done in a week. But for all their golden, glowing colors, no one would buy them. Despairing, but not yet defeated, Van Gogh continued working at a furious rate through the autumn of 1888. He painted a self-portrait, a picture of fellow artist Paul Gauguin, who was with him at Arles at the time, and several famous pictures of empty chairs. Relations with Gauguin were stormy at best. Van Gogh was terrified his friend might desert him, leaving him alone with his demons in Arles. Then came the blow that sent him off the rails for good. Paul Gauguin departed for Paris.

Two Cut Sunflowers, 1887, Vincent van Gogh, though painted in Paris as much as two years earlier, they seem they seem quite in tune with van Gogh's mind upon Gauguin's departure.
Through a fog of madness, Van Gogh produced some of the most extraordinary paintings the world has ever seen. What is more remarkable still, is that these masterpieces came about quite by chance. One hot, breathless August day in Arles, the models Van Gogh had engaged to sit for him failed to turn up and it was too stifling to consider taking his easel outside. But through this struggle to maintain his sanity, Van Gogh produced some of the most extraordinary paintings the world has ever seen. So, with some peasant pots and dying sunflowers, Van Gogh produced seven paintings of astonishing brilliance.

Final version.