“How well he understood the exquisite nature of flowers!” – Octave Mirbeau, first owner of “Irises”
It’s one of the most recognizable – and expensive – paintings in the world. It was one of the very few works that received critical praise during Vincent Van Gogh’s brief but tortured life. It’s known simply as “Irises.” It was painted in 1889 while Van Gogh was recuperating at an asylum at Saint-Remy in southern France. The flowers grew in the asylum’s garden.
Such an iconic image seems almost commonplace today, but back in 1889 it was a whole new way of looking at the world. What were Van Gogh’s inspirations? There were many, which he somehow distilled the essence of each and brought it to this particular canvass. Here is a look at some of them.
Japanese art and fashion became faddishly popular in mid-1800s France and Belgium. It was still popular during Van Gogh’s ten-year career as an artist. He also collected Japanese woodcut prints and even tried his hand at copying a few. Prints made from Japanese woodcuts have clear, bright colors and flowing, curving forms making people, animals, buildings, boats and nature as essentially the same stuff.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Although many art history books claim Japanese woodcuts were Van Gogh’s major inspiration, there also seems to have been some influence by Van Gogh’s contemporary, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901.) He was also influenced by Japanese art. Among his best-known works were vibrant posters that used a limited palette of bright colors and curving, sensuous lines. Both artists briefly knew each other when both lived in Paris in 1886. Van Gogh was very familiar with Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.
The Irises Themselves
The point of view of “Irises” is much different than flower studies done in the past – even flower studies done by Vincent. Usually they were of a garden or selected flowers arranged in a vase. But this time the viewpoint is right down at the level of the irises. Each flower and leaf bends and if carrying a heavy burden and yet springs up resiliently. By this time, Van Gogh had abandoned religion and used nature and art to fill the gap. The power of nature is certainly apparent in the lush green leaves.
His Inner Life
There’s nothing in the painting to indicate that these flowers are growing in an asylum. That may have been intentional. Van Gogh, who once so desperately wanted to be a portrait painter, found out that he was gifted at painting common objects like flowers. He personalized the flowers. He may have thought of himself and the other asylum inmates as the irises, growing out of the dirt.