Ah! Sunflower! Weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime,
Where the traveller’s journey is done. ~ William Blake (1757-1827)
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) – natives of North and Central America – have affected people in different ways since they were first cultivated by Native Americans as early as three millennia ago. For example, the people of ancient Maya and Inca civilizations worshiped the sunflower as an earthly embodiment of the sun gods. The Inca built temples to honor their sun god, which were presided over by priestesses adorned with sun-shaped medallions and headdresses wrought with gold.
In Flora’s Feast (1889), English book illustrator, Walter Crane, portrayed the sunflower as a gilded priestess about whom he wrote, “The blazing sunflower, black and bold, burns yet to win the sunset’s gold.”
Kansas adopted the sunflower as its state flower in 1903, although many residents have long considered the sunflower a noxious weed because the native, multi-headed species grows rampantly throughout the countryside. But poet Ed Blair wrote “An Ode to the Kansas Sunflower” in 1901:
Oh sunflower! The queen of all flowers,
No other with you can compare,
The roadside and fields are made golden
Because of your bright presence there.
Famous painters, too, have been captivated by the sunflower. For instance, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was an avid lover of sunflowers. For him, they represented light, renewal, and health. In a letter to his brother, Theo, in January 1889, Van Gogh indicated his satisfaction with the sunflower canvases he had been working on. He gave one of the pictures to Theo and wrote, “It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look at it.” He also referred to the sunflower as a signature flower for his artwork: “You know that the peony is (Georges) Jeannin’s, the hollyhock belongs to (Earnest) Quost, but the sunflower is somewhat my own.”
Despite what Van Gogh told his brother, sunflowers were not exactly “his” flower, since King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, had declared sunflowers his emblem 200 years earlier. Although Van Gogh never sold any of his paintings during his lifetime, in 2015 one of his “Sunflowers” canvases sold at Sotheby’s auction for $66 million. During the mid- to late-19th century, the sunflower became emblematic of the Aesthetic Movement, whose followers argued that art should be admired simply for its beauty – “art for art’s sake” – rather than for any loftier purpose, such as social commentary or political expression. For the Aesthetics, the sunflower’s simple beauty perfectly epitomized their philosophy.
Tragically, Van Gogh committed suicide not two years after finishing his sunflower paintings, at the age of 37. “The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece” by Martin Bailey (2013) tells the story of the legendary artist’s summer of sunflowers, and what happened to the seven still-life paintings after his death. “Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh” by Sheramy Bundrick (2009) is a fictionalized account of the painter’s affair with a French prostitute to whom, according to police reports, Van Gogh sent his severed ear and asked to “Guard this object carefully.”
Perhaps one of the most widely read pieces of literature containing sunflower symbolism is “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” (1969) by Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals after he was freed from a concentration camp at the end of World War II. Wiesenthal wrote that he was haunted by his memories of sunflowers growing on top of the graves of German soldiers just outside the gates of the concentration camp. He imagined the sunflowers capturing the sunshine and channeling light down through the earth to the soldiers below. In contrast, Wiesenthal believed his destiny would be the same as that of his family and friends – one of the mass graves for Jews. He wrote, “For me, there would be no sunflower.”
On the other hand, Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), a leading figure of the 1960s counterculture movement, used a sunflower as a ray of hope in his famous poem, “Sunflower Sutra” (1955). Ginsberg vividly described a lone sunflower, “dead gray shadow against the sky,” and the way it symbolized an America that had become “crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke” of rampant commercialism. Despite its grime, however, Ginsberg expressed hope that the sunflower (society) could become beautiful again:
Unholy, battered old thing you were, O my soul, I loved you then!…
A perfect beauty of a Sunflower! A perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence!…
We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives,
We’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment…
Here are a few pictures of the blazing sunflower growing in my garden: