Everything but the Ear

The Stems of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Eve Bigaj
22 min readJun 6, 2018


In August 1887, a new species of sunflower was born. The world had never seen anything like these plants. They burst into bloom all at once, sufficient unto themselves. Cut from their stems — as if they’d never had a garden. As if they’d fallen straight out of the deep dark sky, onto an inscrutable, hasty surface, orange and blue solely for their benefit. Where had they come from? Shifting enigmas, half delight, half despair — full power. In one inexplicable instant, four moments: the past tumbled out of the darkness, its face already turned away; two steady disks, unblinking; a third one, closing fast.

They had bloomed for a nobody named Vincent. He’d been coaxing pigments into bloom for the past five years — with mixed effect. To date, he had painted: a series of dark, nearly monochromatic, portraits of peasants; some copies of Japanese prints, stripped of the light grace of the originals; run-of-the-mill impressionist landscapes.

The sunflowers were premature blooms. The rest of the crop sprouted a year later, when Vincent moved to Arles to make masterpiece after masterpiece. By then, he had two years left to live. Two sunflowers.

Where had they come from? The two years which never looked back, when each painting bloomed in its own shade of gold: the years of sunflowers, wheat fields, starry nights?

The easy answer — inspiration, insanity — is no answer at all. The real answer, I think, is much more prosaic: hard work. Van Gogh’s October 1885 letter to his brother Theo ends with what might as well be his manifesto.

LET’S PAINT A VERY GREAT DEAL. That’s the message if we want to succeed, work a lot precisely because it’s slack — then one day, rather than finding all ports closed to us — we may be able to lash a broom to the mast.

Work and all those other things: impressionism, Japanese prints, the light at Arles. During the last two years of his life, van Gogh synthesized every scrap of influence he’d gathered before. It was more than enough.

It’s true that van Gogh’s best work coincided with a period of mental instability unlike anything in his prior years. It’s true that the power of some of his works derives from the expression of terrible pain…



Eve Bigaj

Visual artist following curiosity wherever it leads. I have a Harvard PhD in philosophy. Learn colorful painting with me: evebigaj.com