Skip to Content
Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) by Edward Steichen
Geometric shapes and mostly flat areas of color suggest an abstracted sunflower in a vase against a background of vibrant bands of color in this vertical painting. A spring green oval shape takes up the middle of the lower half of this composition. Cut straight cross the top and bottom, it recalls a wide-mouthed vase. The head of the stylized flower seems to rest propped over or on the top edge of the vase. A pine green circle is outlined with celery green, and then surrounded by a larger, yellow disk to represent the head and petals of the flower. The yellow lightens from canary to goldenrod around the green disk within. Then, the yellow disk is outlined with a darker, honey color. The head of the flower is surrounded by a pale pink disk, almost like a halo. A stylized green stem curves from the blossom into the vase on our left. Bands and blocks of color make up the background in flat areas of crimson, black, eggplant purple, pumpkin orange, white, and shades of blue and green.

Steichen is painting flowers near Paris and says if he keeps on some day he may do something worth looking at....

- poet Carl Sandburg, Edward Steichen's brother-in-law

Edward Steichen, Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), c. 1920, tempera and oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee 1999.43.1

1 of 4
Geometric shapes and mostly flat areas of color suggest an abstracted sunflower in a vase against a background of vibrant bands of color in this vertical painting. A spring green oval shape takes up the middle of the lower half of this composition. Cut straight cross the top and bottom, it recalls a wide-mouthed vase. The head of the stylized flower seems to rest propped over or on the top edge of the vase. A pine green circle is outlined with celery green, and then surrounded by a larger, yellow disk to represent the head and petals of the flower. The yellow lightens from canary to goldenrod around the green disk within. Then, the yellow disk is outlined with a darker, honey color. The head of the flower is surrounded by a pale pink disk, almost like a halo. A stylized green stem curves from the blossom into the vase on our left. Bands and blocks of color make up the background in flat areas of crimson, black, eggplant purple, pumpkin orange, white, and shades of blue and green.

Edward Steichen created Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) in the years after World War I, when he painted, photographed, and gardened at his home in Voulangis, France. Steichen was an enthusiastic gardener, breeding new varieties of delphinium and raising sunflowers and other magnificent blooms. In 1920 he painted this abstract portrait of a golden, black-eyed sunflower bent over a portly vase, a work that combined his passions for painting, photography, and gardening with some of the most contemporary ideas in modern art.

Edward Steichen, Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), c. 1920, tempera and oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee 1999.43.1

2 of 4
null

In Voulangis, Steichen began a close study of nature. French sculptor Auguste Rodin (whom Steichen had befriended and photographed years before) counseled the painter-photographer to look to the natural world for both inspiration and discipline. Landscapes and flowers became the primary subjects of Steichen's paintings and photographs. He also made an intense study of the mathematical ratios of plant growth, teaching himself plane and solid geometry and reading complicated theory in his quest to discover nature's "golden mean."

Edward Steichen, Spiral Shell, 1921, photograph, reproduced with permission of Joanna T. Steichen

3 of 4
null
4 of 4