“Irises” by Van Gogh. About the Artist’s Floral Masterpiece

Van Gogh created the work “Irises” in a critical moment of his life.  While being in a clinic for the mentally ill, in Saint-Remy (southeast of France). 

Several months prior to that, he sliced off his earlobe using a razor and had suffered a nervous breakdown.  Since then, about once a month he got epileptic seizures.  He fall into oblivion for several hours. 

It is generally believed that after this incident, Van Gogh lost his mind.  That means “Irises” was painted by a madman. 

“Irises” was created by madman?  

Nobody knows what disease struck the artist.  He may have suffered from epilepsy (like his uncle and sister).  But that means he was completely sane between seizures. 

Maybe he’d suffered anxiety attacks.  But when it’s gone, the person is sane enough. 

In any case, it’s enough to look at his “Irises” to make sure that it was painted by a sane man. 

Moreover, he was a person who, with every fibre of his being wanted to recover and continue working. 

Vincent Van Gogh. Self-Portrait
Vincent Van Gogh. Self-Portrait with Cut off Ear and Pipe. 1889. Zurich Kunsthaus Museum, Niarchos Private Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

And certainly Van Gogh had a dream.  He wanted to change art and to show everyone that his working method has the right to life. 

After all, he wanted to sell his works in order to become self-reliant and pay off his brother Theo (he paid him a monthly support). 

When Van Gogh was creating Irises, all these hopes still live in him.  He was sure that painting would help him to overcome his maladies. 

That’s why, the picture is so bright and positive. It reflects the artist’s mood for the best. 

What is special about Van Gogh’s Irises? 

In the painting we see a floral carpet.  There’s no horizon and sky.  Van Gogh made it so that the viewer’s attention was poured only on the flowers.  This is a very unusual perspective, which was almost never seen in Western art before. 

It wasn’t Van Gogh’s idea to paint in this way.  This type of perspective is often common among Japanese masters.  When the artist brings the viewer face to face with the subject.  The background is neutral.  This is how the famous Katsushika Hokusai worked. 

Katsushika Hakusai. Irises and Grasshopper.
Katsushika Hokusai. Irises and Grasshopper. 1820s. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

But after Van Gogh, this technique is becoming more common. 

Claude Monet will paint more than one such painting. Including with irises. 

Claude Monet. Irises and water lilies.
Claude Monet. Irises and water lilies. 1914-1917 Private collection.

The same idea was picked up by Members of Art Nouveau.  Among which the brightest was Gustav Klimt. 

Gustav Klimt. Blooming garden
Gustav Klimt. Blooming garden. 1907. Ro Foundation for the Third World, Zurich.

But Van Gogh’s Irises is interesting not only because of its perspective. 

If we compare them with the artwork by Monetthe first thing we can see is the difference in the depiction of colors. 

Monet’s flowers are not clearly painted in an impressionist mannerThey’re highlighted in space by juicy, almost glowing color. 

Van Gogh’s flowers are more plausible and realistic. 

Van Gogh and Monet
Left: Vincent Van Gogh. Irises (detail). Right: Claude Monet. Irises and water lilies (detail).

Moreover, the ground was painted in a completely different way. Separate, multi-colored brushstrokes.  As a result, we’re given the impression that soil is porous. 

We can see all shadesPowder paint, pink, red, yellow, brown.  And even blue. This technique is more like a pointillism. 

Van Gogh. Irises (detail)
Van Gogh. Irises (detail). 1889. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

This is when the artist paints using separate dots or strokes of different colors. With the expectation that at a distance unmixed paints will be merged into a single color mass. 

One of the most famous pointillists was Paul Signac, who introduced Van Gogh to color separation. 

Paul Signac. Red buoy.
Paul Signac. Red buoy. 1895. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

It‘s quite interesting… Before Van Gogh, no one had ever combined two different techniques on canvas. Realism and pointillism. 

But he kind of softened them.  That’s why, nothing repels. As if it was the only way to paint these irises and soil. 

It only shows how Van Gogh was eager to learn from others.  At the same time, he remade everything in his own way.  He consciously was looking for new ways. 

You must admit that a crazy person is not capable of doing it. 

Is there a coded message in the Irises? 

You must have noticed a lonely white growing iris among blue flowers.  What’s that supposed to mean? 

We are tempted to look for meaning in this work. 

Van Gogh. Irises.
Van Gogh. Irises. 1889. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Maybe the artist interpreted his own loneliness? 

After all, nobody believed in him. Except for his brother Theo and himself. 

Probably not. Van Gogh didn’t like symbolism. He wanted to paint only the real world. 

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He was more interested in expression. The ability to express the conceptions through color and shape. 

That’s why, he so easily wavered from realism for this conceptions. Bright colors (“Sunflowers”).  Exaggerated facial features (“Potato Eaters”). 

He wasn’t about to add something in order to encrypt a message. That’s why, he always painted from real life, not from memory. 

Exceptions to this rule is “The Starry Night”Just because Van Gogh couldn’t leave the hospital at night  Unwittingly he had to use his imagination. 

So the artist added white iris in order to highlight the natural diversity. Nothing moreNot without reason, in addition to irises, there is a velvet on this painting. 

The history of “Irises” from the death of Van Gogh till nowadays

We’ re extremely lucky that the Irises has come down to us. 

The fact isVan Gogh gave plenty of works to the people of Saint-Remy. To the chief doctor, his son and even to some patients. 

The plight of many of these paintings is very sadEveryone thought it was just paintings of a delirious man. And treated them in this way. 

So, the doctor’s son used Van Gogh’s paintings as a targetseverely shooting them. local photographer, who was fond of paintingstripped away the layers of Van Gogh’s works. And then painted on a cleaned canvas.

After the artist’s deathhis mother ends up with the “Irises”.  Another miraclethey survived. 

The fact is Van Gogh’s mother did not understand about her son’s artAfter her husband’s death, she moved to another city, she left dozens of his early works in the attic. She just didn’t need itTheir fate is still unknown. 

 After her death, in 1907, the painting was sold to the collector for 300 francs. In 1990 it went to the Getty Museum (Los Angeles).  For … 54 million dollars. 


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