Van Gogh painted two series of sunflower still life paintings, the first were completed in 1887 in Paris, whilst the second set were painted in 1888 in Arles.
Fellow artist and friend of Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, acquired two of the first set painted in Paris and Van Gogh painted the second set of sunflowers a year later in order to try and impress his friend. These later works were intended to be hung in his Yellow House in Arles, which Van Gogh and Gauguin would use as their studio.
Vase with Twelve Sunflowers was completed as part of the second series in August 1888 in Arles and is painted as oil on canvas. Van Gogh was intent on focusing on creating 'broken yellows' which would 'burst against various blue backgrounds', almost like a stained glass window in a church. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about his struggle to complete the sunflower series, where he describes the Vase With Twelve Sunflowers as 'light on light, and will be the best, I hope'.
Van Gogh hoped to complete twelve paintings in this latter series, but only managed four, as the sunflowers wilted so quickly. Moreover, after his mental breakdown which occurred at the end of 1888, Van Gogh again tried to replicate his sunflower works, however he never attempted to repaint Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, which suggests he may have indeed felt this was the best of the four as he intimated in letters to his brother.
Van Gogh's sunflower paintings have continued to be synonymous with the artist long after his death, and were rather innovative at the time. This is because there was such liberal use of the colour yellow, which was only possible due to the new pigments that had only recently been invented. Van Gogh painted sunflowers throughout the whole spectrum of their life, from full bloom to wilted and dying.
Vase with Twelve Sunflowers depicts a host of sunflowers crammed together in a yellow vase, their flowering heads fighting together to reach for the sun, with some in full bloom whilst others are languishing and bowing their heads towards the table. The yellow of the flowers and the vase stand out brightly against the sky blue background, and the twelve flower heads all stacked together give motion and texture to this still life painting.