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Van Gogh's "unknown" Sunflowers revealed in new book: Early image shows lost picture in artist's own frame
Three Sunflowers, 1888, oil on canvas, 73 x 58cm, private collection.
LONDON.- A rare early colour image of Vincent van Gogh’s Six Sunflowers has been tracked down in Japan. It reveals that Van Gogh designed a bold orange frame for his still life. The framed painting, once in a private Japanese collection, was destroyed in an American bombing raid during the Second World War.

This newly discovered image is from a very scarce portfolio produced in Tokyo in 1921, which has escaped the attention of art historians. It is reproduced in The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, by Martin Bailey, to be published by Frances Lincoln on 5 September.

Van Gogh’s narrow wooden frame was painted in orange, producing a dramatic effect when set against the blue background of the still life. This reflects Van Gogh’s love of complementary colours (such as orange and blue), which have a vibrant effect when placed next to each other. Van Gogh has also varied the orange, so that it is a deep orange where it is next to the blue background and a lighter orange next to the lilac table.

We can now see how Van Gogh wanted to present his Six Sunflowers: the yellow-ochre sunflowers were set against a rich royal blue background and then framed in orange. This framing would have been revolutionary in 1888, when pictures were traditionally hung in gilt frames or, for very modern works, in white frames.

There is also a second “unknown” Sunflowers painting which has always been hidden away in private collections. This is Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers, with a bright turquoise background. It has never been exhibited in living memory and its whereabouts have been a mystery. Bailey reveals that Three Sunflowers was acquired by the Swiss-based Greek shipping tycoon George Embiricos, who sold it in the late 1990s. It was then bought by the present owner, a very discreet collector with a taste for Van Gogh.

Altogether Van Gogh painted four pictures of Sunflowers in 1888, with three, six, fourteen and fifteen blooms. The last two are among the world’s most well known paintings - Fourteen Sunflowers (Neue Pinakothek, Munich) and Fifteen Sunflowers (National Gallery, London). Very exceptionally, the National Gallery recently lent Fifteen Sunflowers to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Later this week it will be on show again at the National Gallery.

Martin Bailey, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece,
240 pages, 100 illustrations, is published on 5 September by Frances Lincoln, £25.





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