Vincent Van Gogh certainly painted what he saw. His paintings and drawings convince the viewer that they were produced with intense observation. But a contemplative mind lay at the back of this urgent seeing, and his fiercely original gaze was backed by a keen knowledge and love of art.
"Irises" is a superb example of his blending of art and observation. Van Gogh's vision was described by a contemporary as "fervently delicate," and the words fit both irises themselves and the way he depicts them. He delineates them with vigorous sensitivity, using his brush as a boldly responsive drawing tool.
His observation of the plant forms is acute. Bearded iris blooms, for all their magnificence, do not last long. Van Gogh depicts in this one painting every stage: in furled bud, just bursting into flower, in full flower, and then curling inward as they wither.
His attraction to this subject was the result of his study of art, specifically of Japanese woodcut prints. He was also doubtless aware that irises fascinated many other contemporary artists. The flower was almost an icon of the Japonism of the time. When, the year before, he had painted purple irises growing in a yellow field with the city of Arles in the background, he had called the subject a "Japanese dream."
This flourishing cluster of irises was growing in the old monastery garden of an asylum at St.-Rmy-de-Provence near Arles. In a letter to his brother Theo - the first since his admission there as a voluntary patient on May 8, 1889 - he said he was working on two paintings: "[S]ome violet irises and a lilac bush, two subjects taken from the garden."
The "violet irises" are currently on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, for an exhibition (until Sept.19) called "Masterpiece in Focus: Van Gogh's Irises." The gallery itself owns an "Iris" painting, of the same time and place, which is quite different in color and feeling, indicating the range of the artist's vision.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society