Irises – Analysis

“I have made a series of colour studies in painting, simply flowers.” –van Gogh

Far from a tragedy, Vincent van Gogh’s life and legacy represent a passion for beauty and man’s ability to superimpose order on a universe of seeming chaos. Nowhere is the artist’s joyful mastery of painting more evident than in his still lifes of flowers.Van Gogh’s “Vase of Irises” was painted in 1890 during his voluntary stay at a mental asylum. The picture now resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In this painting, he dispenses with his previously blatant small brush strokes, and instead relies on a heavy impasto and black outlines to provide texture and depth. The palette he chose for this, one of his last paintings, was cooler and less boisterous that most of his previous canvases, employing gorgeous purples, greens and blues against a formal light background and white vase, with shots of yellow inside the bouquet for contrast. A green table repeats the green iris stalks that comprise the body of the flower arrangement and give it its graceful vertical sweep.

This painting can be seen as a return to japonism in its oriental formality, woodcut-like outlines and reliance on the play between ground and foreground. In oriental art, the light space is as important as the dark space, a balance between “yin and yang.” So it is with van Gogh’s lovely “Vase of Irises,” an embodiment of tranquil beauty created during his time of greatest tumult.

“Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background,” now at the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, was completed in 1890, during the end of his stay at the asylum. This work is considered a companion piece to “Vase with Irises.” Though the colors and sweeping lines are breathtakingly bold, the effect is also oriental in its formality. Van Gogh wrote this description of the work, in part: “…the other violet bunch… stands out against a startling citron background, with other yellow tones in the vase and the stand on which it rests, so it is an effect of tremendously disparate complementaries, which strengthen each other by their juxtaposition.”

This master painter and visionary had a grand ability to write about art in a practical but intelligent manner, and his letters to his brother Theo and others have been immensely important in piecing together the course of his short life, which burned so brightly and ended so tragically.

His “Irises, Saint-Remy,” painted in 1889 at, now resides in the Getty Museum at Malibu, California. It combines wildly undulating stalks, leaves and petals in a picture that is full of order and balance. Possibly the first painting Vincent made after entering the asylum at Saint-Rémy, it reflects not only his full mastery of the subject and his chosen style of techniques in such matters as composition, color and perspective, but the vision of an apparently imminently sane man. Indeed, letters to his brother Theo indicate that Vincent felt if he could paint well, he could not be truly insane. It would seem that making sense of opposites was a particular strength of this master artist.

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