Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” hangs in the National Gallery free for anyone to wander in from Trafalgar Square to see at any time. It is one of the joys of London. Five versions of the Sunflowers are scattered around the world. The one that usually lives at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has come for its holidays enabling the two now two versions hang next to other.
Seeing the flowers is still free but be prepared to queue! Indeed maybe view the queue as part of the experience. Enter the Gallery via the Paul Getty entrance to right of the main portico as you look at the gallery. On a weekday morning you will probably be greeted by a serpentine set of ropes to contain the queue that will form at lunchtimes and weekends. When you get to the front you are handed a sunflower yellow ticket and ascend to main galleries, where you join another shorter queue. When at the head of this queue you exchange your yellow slip for a red plastic one and then the sunflowers are yours to compare.
Standing in front of the two paintings is like playing a sophisticated version of spot the difference. Vincent signed the Amsterdam version using a pale blue made from White and Prussian Blue, whilst the London version has a French ultramarine signature. The London version looks slightly more finished than the Amsterdam one but given that they were painted five months apart the similarity is stunning.
The Sunflowers are accompanied by the results of scientific investigations, carried out National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum, into paintings that provide insights into how Van Gogh painted his flowers and what materials he used. For instance the bright yellow pigment is called Chrome Yellow and was a new pigment at the time discovered in 1797 and now used on American school buses. X-rays reveal that the Amsterdam painting had an extra strip of wood added to it.
Van Gogh painted the first two “Sunflowers” to adorn Gauguin’s walls in the house they shared in Arles, however the pair fell out and after Gauguin left the houseshare Van Gogh returned to the subject. The National Gallery bought its version of the Sunflowers from the artist’s family in 1924 and ever since it has remained the most bought postcard and poster. Seeing two “Sunflowers” next to each other is special, just try and get there early on a weekday to avoid the queues.
26 January – 27 April 2014
National Gallery, Paul Getty entrance, Trafalgar Square