'You see what he saw, to the molecules beyond.'

Vase with 12 Sunflowers, 1888 (36in by 28in), by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), Neue Pinakotheck, Munich. Bridgeman Images.

Meera Syal says:
‘This has found its way onto many a fridge magnet and biscuit box, but it never fails to move me, despite its celebrity status. I chose sunflowers for my wedding bouquet; they have a regal arrogance, movement, passion, a dangerous vitality, and that’s what van Gogh captures so breathtakingly. You see what he saw, to the molecules beyond; their life force seems to thicken the canvas. He paints like a beautiful surgeon.’

Meera Syal is a writer and actress and can be seen in Shirley Valentine at the Trafalgar Studios (until October 30).

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘This is the third of four ‘Sunflower’ pictures van Gogh painted in Arles in August 1888, two of which he hung in Paul Gauguin’s designated bedroom at 2, Lamartine Place (aka the Yellow House), the rented premises he hoped they would share. Gauguin eventually arrived in October. Vincent wanted Gauguin to help him found an association of painters in the South of France with the intention of it benefiting them all financially.

Gauguin (born 1848) was to be the leader. Gauguin had previously swapped a painting with Vincent and done business with his art-dealer brother, Theo, but he had to be bribed to stay in Arles. Theo guaranteed to buy one painting from him a month (for 150 francs a time) during his residence. Gauguin was dependent on Theo and felt guilty about Vincent, who was ‘ill and suffers’. He remained with them until Vincent’s self-mutilation at Christmas, and he never forgot the ‘Sunflowers’. ‘It’s… it’s…the flower!’ had been his first stunned reaction. Years later, he recalled ‘the yellow sun that passes through the yellow curtains of my room floods all this fluorescence with gold’.

As for Vincent, he subsequently rationalised to Theo: ‘Old Gauguin and I understand each other basically, and if we are a bit mad, what of it?’ Vincent painted three repeat Sunflowers in January 1890. The most recent auction price (1987) for one of the seven was $40 million. The Yellow House was partially destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War. Today, the whole area has been redeveloped.’

This article was first published in Country Life, August 4, 2010