Why Flowers Matter

I fell in love with Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings at age 10 when I first encountered one on the landing between the first and second floor of the John Herron Art Museum in Indianapolis. I was on my way up to the top floor for my first art class in which I learned to draw trees and flowers. It looked to me, then, as it still does now, that this Vincent guy was drawing with paint, not painting with it. His subject matter didn’t really register then, just the color and the way he put paint on a canvas.

Now there is a new biography of Vincent, Van Gogh The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and in just the first few pages (of the 953!) I have realized something startling. Van Gogh was born into a Dutch culture of family gardens that was centuries old because of the rich soil and the lack of tax on products of its fecundity. In his day the rich had estate gardens, the middle class had tiny city plots, and the poor had window boxes and pots, but all of them grew flowers as well as food. There were literally flowers everywhere Vincent looked from the first day he could see them from his mother’s arms. And she taught all of her children to garden. No wonder he sought color when he finally freed himself of the artistic norms of his day.

Flowers were not frivolous. They were essential to the health and happiness of all people, a lesson his mother instilled in him. So, when he invited his artist friend, Gauguin, to share the yellow house in southern France with him, he filled the house with paintings of sunflowers as a welcoming. He painted blue irises and almond blossoms and trees in the garden of the Saint-Paul hospital. Even the portrait of Dr. Gachet has flowers in it (perhaps delphiniums?), something I had never really seen until now. And one of the famous late paintings, The Sower, which is usually noted for its symbolism and as an ominous indicator of Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental health, now seems to me to be a portrait of a gardener  who is hoping for growth of his seeds and perhaps of peace in his spirit.

sunflower seedling ready to go

So, thanks to Vincent and the Dutch culture that has treasured flowers for hundreds of years, I will see the little sunflower seedling I started a few weeks ago in some new ways as it grows in the middle of my herb garden. Vincent described his art as “pictures full of painting.”  I think that kind of intensity grew from a life full of flowers.

flowers from Indianapolis Museum of Art greenhouse

Cindy Briggs

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