When I was nine years old I began taking painting lessons at a local studio, a short five minute drive from my home. The studio was barely recognizable from the outside, surrounded by lush green woods. The single room workshop was covered in paint splatters from floor to ceiling, head to toe. I remember thinking it was such a mess. (After a few short weeks I realized it was the most beautiful mess I’d ever come to know, and I would soon be making my mark on the walls, tables, stools, the bathroom “mirror”.) Hundreds of books were recklessly thrown into a looming black bookshelf. Calendars were pinned over every inch of wall. Small plastic crates held thousands of holiday and greeting cards.
On my first day I entered the room wearily. I’d been an artist in my own home but never in public. My teacher Mrs. Jean, one of the loveliest souls I’ve ever met, ushered me into my seat quickly. Her shaggy white hair and wrinkled skin fooled me—she was loud, she was fast, and she wasted no time. I was allowed to skim through the books, the calendars, and the cards to choose what I wanted to paint. I stumbled upon “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh and was instantly mesmerized by the brushstrokes.
Van Gogh was the first artist I ever familiarized myself with. He was the first artist I ever learned about. The first famous name I knew. I was quick to declare one of his sunflower paintings my favorite, because sunflowers are my special flower. I loved that painting and I loved Van Gogh because there is something so special about “firsts”.
On a recent trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art I finally saw Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” from 1888 in person. To be honest, it was not the experience I thought it would be. The feeling I thought I would have I would later feel elsewhere—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, standing in front of Claude Monet’s “Bouquet of Sunflowers” from 1881.
Monet’s brushstrokes are delicate and soft. It appears as if every lay of paint was meticulously thought out so color, shape, and size would be perfect. His sunflowers are dreamy and magical. When I look at his sunflowers I see beauty. I see something perfect. When I look at Van Gogh’s flowers I see twisted thoughts. I see the handwork of a man with a unique mind. I thought I would find them beautiful, but personally, I did not.
Eleven years after my first encounter with Van Gogh I have learned much more about him. I know that he suffered from mental illness and I think that can be seen in many of his paintings—especially in his curvy brush work. Globs of paint seem to be harshly laid on top of other globs of paint. He often outlines shapes with dark browns and bright blues. When I see works by Van Gogh I am not floored by beauty or stunned by incredible detail. I am floored by imagination and stunned by how personal they all feel, how I am able to sense a break from reality. When I admire works of art by Van Gogh I feel like I am transported to another world, another universe. I feel as though his cypress trees must exist in some other reality.
At the MET Museum, the plaque under Claude Monet’s “Bouquet of Sunflowers” holds this quote by Vincent Van Gogh: “Gauguin was telling me the other day – that he’d seen a painting by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine. But – he likes mine better. I’m not of that opinion.”
While I have to agree with Van Gogh (I do think Monet’s painting is better – it is the one I would prefer to have hanging in my home), I still find something so enjoyable about Van Gogh’s funny looking flowers. They are weird, odd, peculiar, and eccentric. If I painted them, I’m not sure I would be so proud of myself. However, I do believe art is all about feeling. And in the end, Van Gogh’s sunflowers are sure to evoke some sort of emotion—whether that emotion is love or hate I cannot say or judge.
Featured Image: Van Gogh Sunflowers