Dutch Neo-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh painted a series of oil paintings in 1888 featuring a vase with five sunflowers his period in Arles. This followed an earlier series of sunflower paintings a year earlier in 1887 of cut flowers resting on the ground.
There were four Arles versions, currently in the National Gallery in London, Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, another in a private collection and a fourth which has since been lost.
The first version, called Vase with Five Sunflowers, and also known confusingly as Six Sunflowers, was sold to a private collector from Japan in 1920 for £3,200 where it was moved from Lausanne in Switzerland to Osaka in Japan.
25 short years later in 1945, Japan was under intense bombardment during the final stages of World War 2. After seizing nearby islands Okinawa and Iwo Jima, the United States Army were close to defeating Japan and finally ending the war. Rather than taking a strategy of a ground invasion, which was estimated to cost the lives of 250,000 US Soldiers, the United States took the approach of bombing tactical Japanese cities intensely, over and over, in order to break the will of the Japanese people and force the nation to surrender.
Lasting from February 26, 1945 to August 14 – the day before the end of World War 2, the United States Air Force bombed Japanese cities relentlessly with hundreds of B-29 heavy bombers. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians would die from this.
It was during the bombing of Osaka, the major industrial city of Japan and the lifeblood of the war industry, that Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with five sunflowers was destroyed, likely from the enduring fires that consumed the city. Over 10,000 people would die during the US Bombings of Osaka alone.
This would not be the last the Japanese Nation would see of Vincent Van Gogh. The 1920 purchase started a national obsession with the Dutch Painter. An anonymous bidder purchased another Sunflowers painting by Van Gogh at auction in London in 1887 for just under $40 million. The buyer was eventually released to have been a Japanese insurance company. The painting is now in the Sompo Japan Museum of Art. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet was purchased at auction by Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito for a then-record $82.5 in 1990. The painting has not been seen since his death in 1996.
It was Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with five sunflowers / Six Sunflowers which started the Japanese obsession with the artist. A detailed copy of the work was found in 2013 in archives in Japan, allowing us to see what it would have once looked like.