Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde
(Nolde, near Tondern 1867 - 1956 Seebüll)

Sunflower, 1928

Oil on panel, 73 x 88.9 cm
Signed lower left Nolde and inscribed on the verso Nolde: Sonnenblume

Salman Schocken, Berlin-Zehlendorf (after 1930);
Gershom G. Schocken, Tel Aviv;
Shulamith Schocken, Tel Aviv;
London, Sotheby’s, auction sale 6003, German and Austrian Art, 7 February 2006, lot 4,
$ 1,870,000;
Private collection, England.

Noted as Sonnenblume, 1928 in the handlist Nolde began in 1930;
Martin Urban, Emil Nolde, Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde 1915-1951, Munich 1990, II, no. 1076, p. 384.


The primary vehicle of expression in this powerful painting is colour. A single, large sunflower is starkly contrasted against a darkening sky of billowing thunderclouds. The gleaming yellow mass of the sunflower’s petals suggests invulnerability in the face of the gathering storm. Nolde writes in his autobiography: The radiant colours of the flowers and the purity of the colours, I loved them all. I loved the fate of flowers, first shooting up, blooming, shining, enchanting, then fading and wilting, and finally thrown into a ditch.1

For Nolde, the flowers symbolized the perennial cycle of growth and decay. Viewed in this light, the present painting is both a depiction of nature and a poetic reflection on life.2

The two pre-eminent themes in Nolde’s oeuvre are flowers and landscapes. He was deeply interested in the effects of changing light and weather conditions, and the shifting nuances of the natural world. Like his flower pieces, his landscapes also have symbolic character. Sky and clouds are metaphors for the power of nature and the view that man is engaged in a continual battle with the elements. The solitary, unprotected sunflower stands isolated but defiant – symbolically countering the perceived harshness of nature.

Nolde’s paintings of flowers and gardens reflect his deep affinity to the natural world. He spent many years living in low-lying marshlands in the German province of North Schleswig which borders on Denmark. He produced his first flower pieces on the island of Alsen in the years 1906-08. He had moved to the island with his wife Ada in 1903 to live in a fisherman’s cottage. Here, he drew inspiration from the island’s rugged landscapes and the vivid colours to be observed in its gardens. He began to experiment with floral motifs and would discover his central vehicle of artistic expression in colour.3

The couple moved to a farmhouse named ‛Utenwarf’ on the marshy west coast on their return from the German South Seas in 1916. The house was set in an overgrown, flower-filled garden. Nolde set to work producing chalk drawings and watercolours of the profusion of flowers surrounding the house and would continue to study and sketch them all his life. In 1926 the couple moved to Seebüll, where Nolde worked in a studio and garden he had designed himself. It was here that the present painting was executed in 1928.4

Nolde’s choice of the sunflower as a key motif is not accidental. He was strongly influenced by the work of van Gogh, particularly by his ‘Sunflower’ series. The Berlin gallerist Paul Cassirer staged a van Gogh retrospective in 1928, but previous to this Nolde had had ample opportunities to view work by van Gogh at exhibitions in Munich and Berlin.5 Nolde’s sunflower paintings powerfully echo van Gogh’s bold, virtuoso use of colour. In the present painting Nolde develops the motif and the symbolic values of colour still further. The subject is radically simplified and set against a background of dramatic storm clouds. This heightens the expressive impact and underlines the content of the image – the perceived struggle with nature – found in many of Nolde’s later paintings. The present painting represents an important step in the development of this idea. It is a remarkably emotional painting with unmistakable symbolic significance – an outstanding example of his work in the genre.



1 Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde (ed.), Emil Nolde, Mein Leben, Cologne 1979, p. 148.

2 Peter Vergo, ‘Flowers and Gardens’, in Emil Nolde, exhib. cat., London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 8 December 1995-25 February 1996, p. 118.

3 Martin Urban, Emil Nolde. Blumen und Tiere, 3rd revised and extended edition, Cologne 1980, p. 7.

4 Manfred Reuther, ‘Grüße von unserem jungen Garten. Emil Noldes Gärten und seine Blumen-bilder’, in Manfred Reuther (ed.), Emil Nolde, mein Garten voller Blumen, my garden full of flowers, Cologne 2014, pp. 17-37.

5 Nolde, op. cit., Cologne 1979, p. 135.

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