Mark Harden's Artchive VAN GOGH, Vincent
Irises
1889
Oil on canvas
28 x 36 3/4 in. (71 x 93 cm)
Getty Museum, Malibu, California

From Meyer Schapiro, "Vincent Van Gogh":

IN the asylum at Saint-Rémy, between attacks, van Gogh devoted himself to his art with a desperate determination, knowing that this alone might save him. He called painting "the lightning conductor for my illness". And observing his continued ability to paint, he felt sure that he was not really a madman.

The irises are perhaps the first subject he did in the asylum. It preceded his first attack there and at first glance shows no evident trace of that moodiness and high tension which appear in many of the later works. He paints the flowers with admiration and joy.

The profusion of elements in this closely-packed picture is tamed and ordered for the eye without loss of freedom by the division of the canvas into fairly distinct, large regions of colour approaching symmetry: the cold leaf-green in the middle, the iris- blue above and beneath, and in two corners the red ground and the distant warm green, touched with yellow, orange, and white. Each region has its own characteristic shapes and spotting, and all are luminous.

Interesting in the high-keyed colour is that the strongest note, the iris-blue, is the darkest and has also the greatest range from light to dark. In mass of colour, the chief contrast is of this blue with the mild, dilute blue-green of the leaves; their complementary contrasts with red and yellow are secondary and reserved for the margins of the picture. All this helps to temper the luxuriant natural bouquet and to produce a closer, muted harmony, while preserving a gay colourfulness and richness.

Most original is the drawing of the irises. Unlike the Impressionist flower pieces in which the plants are formless spots of colour, these are carefully studied for their shapes and individualized, with the same sincerity and precision as van Gogh's portraits; he discovers an endless variety of curved silhouettes, a new source of movement, in what might easily have become a static ornamental repetition of the same motif. These wavy, flaming twisted, and curling lines, broken and pointed, anticipate the later works done at Saint-Rémy.