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The flowers of Gustave Caillebotte’s Sunflowers Along the Seine appear animated with a strange confusion, as if part of a modernist Fantasia where the flowers sung the Soviet national anthem instead of the lilting Nutcracker.

This is quite different from Fantasia, though. We have a family of sunflowers lovingly painted along the gleaming and glass-like Seine. A building emblazoned with a French flag peaks out in the background, breaking the sense of naturalism by inserting a cry of the city. It is quite odd how human-like the sunflowers appear. It’s like they're in conversation about what they think is going on in that building back there. Maybe they think it’s an eyesore and want it removed. 

Many of Caillebotte’s most famous paintings present the viewer with a subject experiencing a new and disorienting world. His subjects were quiet Parisians (and not usually flowers) navigating the newly modernized and industrialized France. Bridges of girded steel are common elements in his work, perhaps the most brutal feat of engineering, at least in terms of visual appeal. His work often reminds us of the insane amount of transformation cities went through to become industrialized in the 19th century. Because of this, his impressionistic works also read like the metaphors of a modernist author.

Caillebotte was an engineer himself, which explains his interest in architecture. Painting was something he never depended upon for money; instead, he was a patron for artists like Degas and Renoir. During the 1880’s, the time this painting was made, he retreated slightly from the art world and picked up gardening. This painting, then, seems to favor all three of his pursuits: engineering, gardening, and art.

It goes without saying that this painting brings to mind van Gogh’s Sunflower series. Curiously, about the time Van Gogh began those paintings, he asked his brother Theo to go see the work of Caillebotte so that he could describe it to him. He had never seen one before and wanted to know what it was like. Maybe – and only maybe – these paintings are more connected than we think, like the interconnected roots of neighboring plants.


Comments (4)

Kanyun Zhou

I like this piece because it depicts a beautiful scene: sunflowers, the reflection of the lake, and the trees in the distance. Besides, it uses foreshortening. the sunflowers in the near distance are depicted as larger and more concrete, whereas the trees in the distance are depicted as smaller and blurred.

Olivia Raun

This is a beautiful piece of artwork.

The texture throughout the piece is unifying and creates a sense of fluidity throughout the piece as a whole. Yet, the contrast of the yellow sunflowers against the blue water adds dimension and creates an engaging focal point. The yellow sunflowers also serve as an excellent frame of the building across the water - some of the sunflowers even seem to be facing the building, as if they are paying attention to what is happening within the walls of the building.

The French flag in the background provides a lot of context for this painting. Although subtle, this flag helps to demonstrate the nationalism in France during this time. The building and flag compared to the sunflowers also create a sense of contrast. On one side of the water stands a strong building once again demonstrating the nationalism of France; yet, on the other side of the water stands delicate yet strong sunflowers representing the element of untouched nature.

On a surface level, this looks like a gorgeuous unified piece of art, but when looking deeper the different elements of contrast begin to shine through and add more dimension to the painting. The artist was effective in telling an engaging story by using the building, flag, and sunflowers as subjects, rather than people or animals. As Matt Marcure said, the sunflowers seem to almost be having a conversation with one another - personifying them even more. I like the choice the artist used not to include human or animal subjects because I believe that would take away from the meaning of this piece.