During the first half of his career, Edward Steichen practiced both painting and photography. His early paintings consist of soft, monochromatic landscapes and portraits executed in a turn-of-the-century tonalist manner that corresponded to the muted qualities of his photographic work. By contrast, during the late 1910s, Steichen developed a striking, hard-edge modernist style. This dramatic departure is exemplified by The Sunflower which was apparently executed in 1920. Sometime between 1920 and 1923, in a crisis of faith, Steichen abandoned painting and destroyed all the canvases still in his possession. By this time,The Sunflower had already left his hands; it is, therefore, virtually the only surviving example of its kind. 
In 1906, after four years in New York, Steichen moved to France with his wife and children, settling in a country house in the town of Voulangis in Brittany, where he was able to pursue a passion for gardening along with his work in painting and photography. Following World War I (during which he had served in the United States Army) Steichen returned to Voulangis, and remained there until 1922. In his garden, Steichen raised sunflowers, photographing them in a series of intense close-up images. The iconography of the present painting is obviously related to his activities both as horticulturist and photographer. Steichen also studied the intrinsic mathematical ratios of plant growth (as explicated by mathematicians such as Jay Hambridge and Theodore Andrea Cooke),  deriving formal principles that he applied to a series of small, abstract tempera paintings of triangular shapes. Conceived as illustrations for an unrealized children's book about the inhabitants of an imaginary land, these stark but fanciful images, called "Oochens,"  are clearly relevant to the formal vocabulary of The Sunflower, especially the passages that surround the flower and vase.
Given the fate of Steichen's late paintings, his stylistic development remains somewhat obscure. Clearly,The Sunflower also reflects certain wartime and postwar developments in European and American art, notably the new emphasis on machine-made or streamlined forms in the work of French painters such as Fernand Léger and Francis Picabia, as well as American painters such as Charles Sheeler, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Gerald Murphy. Steichen, who was extremely active in the modernist communities of Paris and New York, would have been closely familiar with this new, post-cubist tendency. The Sunflower stands apart, however, for its boldly simplified manner and its striking, off-key palette. Even more than other paintings of the period around World War I, The Sunflower recalls the sculptures of Steichen's friend Constantin Brancusi (whom he photographed during the 1920s). Indeed, Steichen's vase bears a remarkable formal kinship to Brancusi's Maiastra (Tate Gallery, London), a swelling, streamlined figure of a bird in polished bronze that Steichen set in a dramatic installation in the garden at Voulangis. Like Brancusi's bird, The Sunflower is a highly refined synthesis of organic and industrial form.
The Sunflower was exhibited at the Salon d'automne in Paris in 1922, an important venue for new painting. 
(Text by Jeffrey Weiss, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. For Steichen's development as a painter, see Anne Cohen DePietro, "The Paintings of Eduard Steichen," in The Paintings of Eduard Steichen [exh. cat., The Heckscher Museum] (Huntington, N.Y., 1985), 17-43; and Mary Anne Goley, "From Tonalism to Modernism: The Paintings of Eduard J. Steichen," in The Paintings of Eduard J. Steichen: From Tonalism to Modernism [exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art] (Cleveland, 1988), 1-40.
2. Penelope Niven, Steichen: A Biography (New York, 1997), 492-493.
3. Reproduced in Steichen: The Photographer [exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art] (New York, 1961), 73.
4. Niven 1997, 495.a
on stretcher: Edward J. Steichen / Voulangis par Crécy-en-Brie S. et M. / (Agént Lucien Foinet 19 rue Vavin)
Marks and Labels
Gift c. 1920/1922 from the artist to François Jourdain [1876-1958], France; by descent in his family; acquired 1985 by (Robert Miller Gallery, New York); purchased 18 May 1999 by NGA.
- Salon d'Automne, Paris, 1922, no. 2163, as Tournesol.
- From Tonalism to Modernism: The Paintings of Eduard J. Steichen, Federal Reserve System, Washington, D.C., 1988, no. 34, repro., as Le Tournesol.
- The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-2000. Part I, 1900-1950, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1999, not in cat.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- The Paintings of Eduard Steichen. Exh. cat. The Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York, 1985: 41, repro. 39.