NOBODY, as far as I know, has written a thesis on ``the sunflower in art,'' but if one did give attention to such an unlikely topic, there seems little doubt which artist would receive the most attention. Van Gogh, comparing his sunflower paintings with flower paintings by other, now forgotten artists of his day, rather modestly wrote to his brother: `` . . . the sunflower is mine, in a way.''
Posterity and popularity have so thoroughly agreed with him that this giant among flowering plants has come to be virtually synonymous with the vigorous, intense art of this 19th-century Dutch painter. In the process, and because of endless and often poor reproductions, the image (and he made at least 11 paintings of the subject) has become almost a clich'e, difficult to look at with freshness. What the Mona Lisa is to Leonardo, the sunflower is to Vincent. All the same, Van Gogh's paintings of this flower remain what Roger Fry called ``one of [his] triumphant successes,'' belonging ``to a moment of fortunate self-confidence . . . when the . . . intensity of his emotional reaction to nature put no undue strain on his powers of realization'' (an intriguing comment if unduly patronizing toward an artist whose ``powers of realization'' are phenomenal).
A surprising number of other painters have also found sunflowers a worthwhile and challenging motif. Gauguin liked Van Gogh's sunflower paintings ``extraordinarily'' and painted his friend painting them. He also recorded in words the impression made on him when he arrived in Arles in 1888 to share Vincent's ``Yellow House'' to find its walls covered with sunflower paintings. Perhaps it was nostalgia that caused him, after he had emigrated to Tahiti away from European civilization, to have some seed sent from France so that he could grow sunflowers in the South Seas, and then make his own painting of them.
Much earlier in art history, the Flemish artist Van Dyck (for symbolic reasons that have successfully puzzled art historians) portrayed his face in close proximity to the head of a sunflower of equal size.
In our century, Mondrian is found painting sunflowers filled with vitality and then, by contrast, fading morosely. Expressionist Emil Nolde paints them full of ripeness, glowing like hot coals in a deep summer dusk. The American artist Georgia O'Keeffe's version is a midday flower-become-sun, brilliant and alone against a fierce blue sky, flaming with a rim of vivid yellow petals.
Impressionist Claude Monet painted a bunch of sunflowers in a Japanese vase. Van Gogh reported that Gauguin had described this picture to him, saying it was ``very fine, but -- he likes mine better.'' He added: ``I don't agree -- .''
There is, however, something about the muscular energies, the exuberance and fruitfulness of this sinewy flower, which is far more in tune with the character of Van Gogh's art than with the weightless, light-filled paintings of the Impressionists. Van Gogh had painted some of his sunflowers while he was in Paris in 1887, encountering impressionism for the first time. Perhaps his lightened palette drew him to their brightness. But his finest treatments of the subject came the following year in the South, in Arles. Here they become signals of his developing individuality, owing little to influences.
They offered him splendid, sturdy forms to parallel the heavy abundance of his paint and brushwork. They were big and heroic, not too delicate, and very simple: basic flowers. They allowed him to bring together in one theme three concerns of his art: a passion for nature and its liberality, a need to see its forms as strong essences, and a desire to make his art decorative.
Characteristically he knew (and told his brother) the sources of his inspiration to paint sunflowers. One was the recollection of flower decorations seen in a Parisian restaurant. ``I always remember the big sunflower in the window there,'' he wrote. Another was a ``very extraordinary Manet'' of some huge pink peonies against a light background, ``as much the open air and as much a flower as anything could be, and yet painted in perfectly solid pat'e,'' a French word meaning paste or even ``dough'' which tellingly describes the sort of weight and texture he was achieving in his own paintings. But how completely unlike anything Manet ever painted in his deft style is the admiring Van Gogh's ``Sunflowers.'' He may have been prompted by the Manet picture, but was not influenced by it.
Van Gogh's light background in ``Sunflowers'' emphasizes the silhouette -- a significant part of the painting's expressive and decorative impact. Planning up to a dozen paintings on the theme, he wanted them to be a ``symphony in blue and yellow.'' The flower's yellowness was certainly part of its appeal. He once described yellow as ``the embodiment of the utmost clarity of love.''