Vincent Van Gogh's Painting, Sunflowers, is a Still Life in Motion

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Although a still life, this oil has a life of its own and I feel it possesses the uncanny ability to come alive and observe the observer. It forced me to open my heart and feel. At first glance this appeared as simple sunflowers in various stages of growth. After a minute I saw much more.

I volunteered, in art class, to study this masterpiece when it was housed at the Philadelphia Art Museum and found myself seated on a small bench not a dozen feet away from the bright and subdued yellows, ochre’s, cadmiums and oranges with green stems and sharp pointed leaves winding through the maze of faces, many staring back at me.

Each flower takes on the expressions of a face and each face has something to say. Take the sunflower at ten o’clock; this appears as an accusing, terror-eyed adolescent aware of its short future and, with a tear in its eye, in blind rage, blames the viewer for its mortal fate in the vase. Cut from the stalk, it knows it will die.

Other expressions seem unaware of the future and seem to be distracted, watching perhaps a cat with a ball of yarn, while another, paralyzed with fear, hides behind another, unable to face reality.

The more faces I saw, the more appeared. Once the door to my imagination opened it would not close. While the 6 mature, furry looking flowers running vertically through the crowd seem resigned to their age and their nearness to death, they appear to have faces filled with hope as they look around for help, not quite in desperation.

The “face” at four o’clock seems to have spotted what might be help of some kind off in the distance. It takes very little imagination to see this. Its vision is sharp, its eye is wide open and intent. It hasn’t given up.

The flower placed at five o’clock has given up hope and feels death’s cloak as the infant, just opposite on the other side of the vase offers balance and yields a heart filled with youthful optimism, unaware of its plight. How sad.

Looking closely, I couldn’t help noticing perhaps the most inspirational flower face of all. With only its profile showing, residing at one o’clock, this heroic outline is looking up, perhaps to God and bears its heart as well as its thought.

Watching this still life come to life before my eyes, I couldn’t help but feel I understood this master and all he stood for, if only for a moment. I have seen many of his paintings but I feel this unique painting offers a glimpse into this complex artist, as a brave man and a humanitarian. 

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