In August 2020, a celebration took place in New York City to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote. A giant field of sunflowers surrounding the text of the article was displayed on the monumental staircase at Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedoms State Park.
On January 22, 2023, the city celebrated Ukraine’s Day of Unity by honoring the bravery of its citizens and soldiers. It was a day of “reflection and hope for a free tomorrow.” For the occasion Manhattan’s 23rd Street at Flatiron Plaza was adorned with a bed of sunflowers symbolizing New York City’s support for and solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
What was the meaning behind these floral displays?
The sunflower was the symbol of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In 1867, activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wore sunflower pins as they campaigned for the right to vote in Kansas. While the referendum failed, yellow remained the campaign’s color and the flower appeared on all promotional materials. In 1903, Kansas designated the sunflower as its official floral emblem.
It is also the national flower of Ukraine. After the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Ukrainians planted sunflowers in the devastated area. They represented hope of renewal and extracted toxins from the soil. Ever since the Russian invasion, sunflowers have become global symbols of solidarity, resistance and desire for peace in the troubled nation.
When Columbus set sail in 1493 on his second voyage to the Americas, he carried with him seeds, plants and livestock that were not occurring there. This cargo started a process that has been called the Columbian Exchange.
European explorers in the Americas returned home with plants such as beans, squash, peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, avocado and pineapple. The introduction of potatoes and maize (corn) would have the most profound impact on European agriculture. Their cultivation helped to overcome regular famines that had plagued the continent.
In return, wheat and barley became staple crops growing on the American prairies. On his second voyage to the Americas, Columbus brought the sugarcane to the Caribbean which soon flourished on plantations in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Once coffee was introduced, it became a crucial new crop in Central and South America thanks to its favorable climate.
European settlers brought a variety of livestock across the Atlantic. Fast reproducing pigs, sheep, cattle, chickens and goats supplied new food sources. Early explorers shipped horses across the Atlantic despite the difficult voyage because they were essential for transport and proved useful in the battle against indigenous peoples (who had never seen war horses before).
The most terrifying aspect of the Columbian Exchange was the spread of diseases. Europeans introduced measles, malaria, yellow fever and influenza to the Americas. Worst of all, they transmitted smallpox to native communities that did not have immunity, causing a dramatic number of fatalities. Europe may have been infected with syphilis by those who had returned from their American adventure.
The sunflower was a common crop among Indigenous Peoples and cultivated in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3,000 BC and used in a variety of ways. Parts of the plant served as poultice on sores, swellings and snake or spider bites. A tea made from its leaves combated fevers or malaria. The oil of the seed was used on skin and hair; the durable stem fibers served as building materials.
For the Aztecs, the sunflower was a sacred offering to Huitzilopochtli, the deity of war and sacrifice. They created the earliest sunflower art by using processed flowers and seeds to create vibrant yellow and purple pigments. They pioneered flower images in art, pottery and body painting.
The genus Helianthus – a Latin compound derived from the Greek words helios (sun) and anthos (flower) – and the species Helianthus annuus or common sunflower were named in 1752 by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus at a time that the flower (which he grew himself in his botanical garden at Uppsala) had become popular amongst European gardeners.
The first seeds were brought over from the Americas to Europe in the sixteenth century. Once introduced to Spain, domesticated sunflowers quickly migrated to parts of Italy and the Low Countries via transregional trade routes. They created a sensation. Botanists, artists and publishers around Europe exchanged information about them. They originally bred the flower for decorative purposes – not as a food item.
By the late 1560s the first known images of the flower were printed in herbals. They began to show up in European oil paintings during the 1600s. Once Louis XIV, the French “Sun King,” claimed the flower as his symbol, it became an exclusive fashion item.
When in 1632/3 Anthony van Dyck painted his “Self-Portrait with Sunflower,” there was a well-established iconography that represented the flower’s aesthetic qualities with botanical specificity. The Flemish master who worked at the London Royal court of King Charles I had ample models to consult through emblem books and florilegia (collections of flower illustrations) that had been produced in his native Antwerp and elsewhere in the Low Countries.
The portrait shows the artist holding in one hand an opulent gold chain gifted to him by the King that identifies his position as Royal portraitist. With the other hand he directs the viewer’s attention towards the head and foliage of a golden sunflower as a manifestation of his loyalty to the monarch. Numerous of Van Dyck’s contemporaries included sunflowers in their art as exotic props. Helianthus was a flower of Royalty and Empire.
In the European emblem tradition, sunflowers were symbolic of devotion and fidelity as they turn during the day to follow the sun across the sky (which is reflected in the French name tournesol, the Spanish girasol, or Italian girasole).
Russia & Ukraine
Between 1700 and 1800, sunflowers fell out of fashion and were mainly cultivated for seeds, fibers or dyes. During that period farming moved to Russia and Ukraine which became centers of cultivation as their dry and arid climate proved particularly suitable for the plant. The seeds were crushed for oil, while stalks and flower heads were used to feed farm animals.
In a quirk of fate, the Orthodox Church dictated Lent restrictions on foods made with fats and oils. It named which edibles were forbidden, but sunflower oil products were excluded from the list. As a consequence, demand boomed which eventually led to the cultivation of an imposing new variety – the Mammoth Russian.
By the late nineteenth century, the sunflower’s global journey went full circle when its seeds were imported into the United States, most likely by Russian immigrants. By 1880 (and lasting deep into the twentieth century), American companies advertised the Mammoth Russian in their seed catalogues.
Before the current conflict between the two nations, Ukraine and Russia provided seventy-five percent of the global exports of sunflower seeds. In 2021, Ukraine was the dominant source of sunflower oil production, providing one-third of the world’s supply.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in March 2022 the sunflower has been used around the globe to express sympathy and support for Ukraine by planting seeds, giving out bouquets, and wearing sunflowers as symbols of solidarity and hope for peace.
Aesthetes & Impressionists
Advances in chemical processes during the 1800s widened the artistic range and variety of colors. The manufacture of vibrant new pigments revived the interest in sunflowers. Yellow became indicative of aesthetic fashions of the late nineteenth (the “Yellow Nineties”) and early twentieth centuries. The avant-garde was cloaked in yellow.
Oscar Wilde adopted the sunflower as an emblem. During his 1882 American tour, cartoons and posters depicted his head peering out from sunflower petals. When he arrived in San Francisco, Wilde was greeted by thousands of curious people.
His reception inspired a satirical cartoon by George Frederick Keller published on March 31, 1882, in a local magazine The Wasp entitled “The Modern Messiah” in which sunflowers feature heavily.
French Impressionists introduced sunflowers in modernist European painting. Claude Monet exhibited his 1881 “Bouquet of Sunflowers” at the seventh Impressionist show in Paris (the garden path at his home in Vétheuil was lined with sunflowers in blue and white ceramic pots). The painting was admired by critics and the public alike. His friend Gustave Caillebotte also grew sunflowers in his garden at Petit Gennevilliers and painted them there in about 1885.
These artists paved the garden path for Vincent van Gogh who would create a signature style of representing domesticated sunflowers. Having moved from Paris to Arles in February 1888, he felt lonely and isolated.
His dream was to set up an artists’ colony based in his rented “Yellow House.” When Paul Gauguin promised to join him, a rejuvenated Vincent embarked on a summer of prolific painting, intending to impress his guest.
As a symbol of gratitude and devotion, the sunflower had special meaning for him. Painting directly from life at the sunflower fields along the Rhone River, he created five large canvasses with sunflowers in a vase.
He applied three shades of yellow (and “nothing else”) without loss of expressive power. Gauguin appreciated Vincent’s flower paintings, although the personal relationship between the two artists soon deteriorated.
Darkness & Depression
For an artist who grew up under the dark grey skies of the northern Netherlands, Vincent’s “golden” palette metaphorically evoked the bright warm light of southern France. But that is not the full story. Despite its association with heat and hope, yellow also carries negative connotations which include cowardice (“yellow-belly”), foul play (in soccer: “yellow card”), and fabrication (“yellow press”).
Yellow may suggest mental illness or depression. Medical historians have related Van Gogh’s “obsession” with yellow to the schizoaffective disorder and epilepsy he suffered throughout his life (worsened by his addiction to absinthe). His sunflowers did not “chase the light.” They were created out of inner darkness.
Edward Steichen arrived in Paris shortly after Vincent’s departure for the Provence. Born Édouard-Jean Steichen in March 1879 in Bivange, Luxembourg, he would become a key figure in the evolution of photography (Director of Photography at New York City’s MoMA from 1947 to 1962). His parents moved to America in 1881 and eventually settled in Milwaukee where Edward began his career as a lithographer being apprenticed with the American Fine Art Company.
Steichen took up photography in 1896 after acquiring a Kodak 50-exposure box camera. By 1898 he exhibited at the Philadelphia Photographic Salon and soon after moved to New York City.
In 1900, encouraged by Alfred Stieglitz, he sailed on the French ocean liner La Champagne to Le Havre and settled in Montparnasse where he worked as a painter and photographer, splitting his time and exhibitions between Paris and New York City. In 1902, Steichen and Stieglitz began their long and productive relationship as founding members of Manhattan’s Photo-Secession.
Having joined the Army Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I, Edward pioneered the use of aerial photography. He left the service in 1919 with a rank if Lt. Colonel. In the aftermath of war he suffered bouts of depression, endured a bitter divorce and faced financial problems.
At this troubled spell, Steichen painted “Le Tournesol” (Sunflower) sometime between 1920 and 1922. The painting’s burst of yellow seems to evoke the sun and flash photography at once. It is the only finished canvas of its kind to survive from this intensely volatile period in his life.
In 1923, at his house in Voulangis, Île-de-France, Steichen destroyed his backlog of paintings in a bonfire and abandoned the medium altogether. For the painter, the sunflower did not symbolize the light of new beginnings. It signified the dusk of termination.
For many young and talented Americans like Steichen, Paris had been a feast, a festival and an education. But the party in war-torn Europe was over. Leaving their youth behind, they returned to the United States as a mature generation of artists from which American culture would greatly benefit.
Illustrations, from above: A US Sunflower Suffrage button from the election of 1904 (Museum of the City of New York); Anthony van Dyck, Self Portrait with a Sunflower, 1632-3 (Private Collection); Russian Mammoth sunflower; George Frederick Keller’s cartoon depicting Oscar Wilde’s 1882 visit to San Francisco in The Wasp, March 31, 1882; and Gauguin’s painting of Van Gogh painting sunflowers, 1888 (Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).