Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch, Post-Impressionist painter of landscapes, portraits and still lifes. This post focuses on his “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters” still life painting. It is the second of a two-part series where I explore Vincent van Gogh’s flower paintings. Read Part I here – where I discuss and analyse his “Sunflowers” painting.

Gladioli and Chinese Asters as a still life subject

When you hear ‘Vincent van Gogh’, you might think ‘painter of sunflowers’, but he painted other flowers too. And I wanted to highlight this fact by studying “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”, which is a painting I find particularly satisfying to look at. I will explore why throughout this post.

A quick google search tells me that gladioli are a symbol of remembrance, yet they also represent things like ‘strength of character’ and ‘moral integrity’. Knowing this gives them an added element of prominence within Vincent’s painting – and they are painted in bold colours which emphasises their majesty.

Chinese asters seem to be more frequently known as ‘China asters’ and have many interpretations regarding their symbolism. Common themes tend to agree on love, happiness and wisdom. This sets the initial painting subject in positive terms.

A first look at the painting

Compositionally, the vase takes centre stage, and the gladioli fill the top two thirds of the painting. A few wilting stalks lie next to the vase on the surface. The flowers are bold and dominant and a subtle shadow on the left suggests a light source to the right of the observer.

Vincent painted “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters” in the late summer of 1886. This was a few years before the problems in his personal life peaked. However, we know that in 1886, Vincent was experiencing conflicts with his brother Theo, who he was living with at the time.

I believe that artworks contain clues to the artist’s state of mind, even if the intention of the artwork may be quite different. I don’t suppose I am alone in this viewpoint; I have even observed it in my own work – upon subsequent reflection. This process is therefore an unconscious one.

It’s just my opinion, but I feel that the use of a blue background gives muted overtones of tension and sadness – in what should otherwise be a vibrant, optimistic floral painting.

Or perhaps Vincent was simply experimenting with new colours, having recently added cobalt blue to his palette, as well as carmine (a bright red) and emerald green. More on colour theory later.

In any case, Vincent was trying to earn money from selling paintings of flowers. Flowers being a popular subject for art. An opinion that is still universally recognised today, due to the timeless beauty of flowers.

No signature on the vase

In the image I am viewing of “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters” I see no signature, not even on the vase.

In Part I, I queried the signature on the vase of “Sunflowers” and it brought back memories of some early-life trauma for me. (Ok, not exactly… but I discuss the reasons why Vincent may not have signed all his paintings in more detail.)

I just wanted to point out the difference between the two paintings, and that this is one of his unsigned paintings.

Compositional sketch

As before, I decided to do a simple watercolour sketch. This is really a way for me to get a feel for the layout and composition of the painting rather than to explore any particular stylistic technique. It’s all about getting familiar with the artwork first.

Like the sketch I did for “Sunflowers”, it’s the same size (A6, Daler-Rowney cold-pressed watercolour paper) and took a similar amount of time – 20-30 minutes. Of course, I used my Royal Talens Van Gogh watercolours! And my Uni Pin Fineliners for that scribbly ‘urban-sketch’ vibe.

A watercolour sketch of Vincent van Gogh's 'Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters' painting by Ruth Burton artist.

I just love playing with watercolours in this way.


Blue is the overriding colour in this painting, with the blue background accounting for around three-quarters of the canvas.

The use of blue here seems ambiguous. Blue can symbolise ‘sadness’, as I alluded to earlier. However, it can also often denote things like ‘calm’ and ‘tranquillity’ too.

In the digitalised version of “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters” that I am looking at, the blue is crossed with an orangey-grey which evokes a stormy, turbulent atmosphere.

As mentioned previously, is this a subconscious reflection of Vincent van Gogh’s state of mind when he was painting it? Or maybe the still life set-up he was copying was genuinely against a blue wall? Quite possibly this is all it is.

In any case, I replicated the same ‘colour search’ activity that I did for the “Sunflowers” painting in Part I. This is where I attempt to pick out and mix the ten main colours used in the artwork.

This is my colour swatch:

An acrylic paint swatch of colours used in Vincent van Gogh's 'Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters' painting by Ruth Burton artist.

Again, I was surprised by the range of colours used. Although maybe less surprised that when I did this for “Sunflowers”. Maybe, in a contradictory kind of way, I was already expecting there to be “more colours than expected” this time round. But maybe also because on first glance there are clearly other strong colours used.

While blue still dominates, there are strongly contrasting whites, reds and browns. These are apparent without too much searching. I also found greens, yellows, pinks and oranges. So – representing a variety of primary, secondary and tertiary colours from the colour wheel.

Colour theory

According to the Van Gogh Museum website, Vincent was studying colour theory around this time, becoming interested in the use of complimentary colours. That is, colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel. Basically, they tend to work well together.

We can see him experimenting with complimentary colours in “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”. For instance, there are reds next to greens – this really makes the red gladioli stand out.

Also, the orange (in the orangey-grey) that is incorporated into the background compliments the blue to give the painting more depth. Look at this alongside the “Sunflowers” background, which appears flat by comparison.

Maybe this is why I find the painting satisfying. I like using complimentary colours too.

Vincent van Gogh techniques

The impasto technique (discussed in Part I) is much more obvious in “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters” than in “Sunflowers”. Of course, remember I am looking at digital images so can’t be conclusive about this observation.

We can visibly see the brushstrokes in all areas of the painting – the flowers, stalks, vase, wall and table. This gives the painting its energy in a different way to “Sunflowers”. The caricatured style of the sunflower heads create movement which provide the energy there.

In “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”, the underlying subject of the flowers in the vase appear ‘still’. The textures of the impasto technique therefore create the energy.

It is understood that Vincent van Gogh mixed colours directly on the canvas, and there is evidence of this here. Perhaps most noticeably with the hints of red that are introduced at the bottom right of the vase.

I feel that this ‘canvas mixing technique’ creates a more interesting painting and is maybe another of the reasons I am drawn to it. I like texture. It highlights a different way of looking at everyday items.

Acrylic painting study

Like I did for “Sunflowers”, I also tried to recreate a small area of in “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”. The area I chose is just off-centre – capturing three stems, with pink, yellow and red flowers respectively.

I tried to mimic the loose brush strokes and colour mixing technique on the paper. It was a lot of fun and here is the result:

An acrylic painting study of Vincent van Gogh's 'Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters' by Ruth Burton artist.

My version has turned out with lighter overall colours than Vincent van Gogh’s painting, but I like that.

This kind of exercise is very calming in itself, and I would recommend you give it a go – without any attachment to the end result. In that way, it becomes a mindfulness practice. (I discuss the theme of mindfulness art in a previous blog).

Final thoughts

It has been interesting to study two of Vincent van Gogh’s still life flower paintings. I feel like I have learnt a lot more about him in the process.

I wish I had time to study all the paintings by all the artists in this way! However, I will definitely be examining other artists’ work, techniques and lives in future blogs so watch this space.

In the meantime, find a painting that you like. Make a cup of tea. And just sit with the artwork for a while. You’ll be surprise by what you notice.

Be well and stay safe.