Irises

Irises

I wanted to tell you that I think I’ve done well to come here, first, in seeing the reality of the life of the diverse mad or cracked people in this menagerie, I’m losing the vague dread, the fear of the thing. And little by little I can come to consider madness as being an illness like any other. Then the change of surroundings is doing me good, I imagine. As far as I know the doctor here is inclined to consider what I’ve had as an attack of an epileptic nature. But I haven’t made any enquiries. Have you by chance yet received the crate of paintings, I’m curious to know if they’ve suffered more, yes or no. I have two others on the go — violet irises and a lilac bush. Two subjects taken from the garden.
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Painting Date
9th of May 1889
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This is one of the first works Vincent created in the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence.  It is also one of his best canvases in the eyes of Theo (and many others over the years to come) and was chosen for exhibition by his brother a year before Vincent died.  It is related to several other views Vincent captured within the garden of the asylum, a place of calm for him, especially in his first weeks of self imposed confinement.

 

After his ear lobe was severed and the people of Arles petitioned his imprisonment, Vincent admitted himself to the hospital in St. Remy to receive treatment for his illness.  While Vincent will suffer a debilitating attack in August of this year, most of his time spent at the asylum finds him lucid and in good mental and physical health.  He is very productive over his 12 month stay, creating over 150 canvases with Irises being the first.  The brothers converse about the work several times in their correspondence in 1889.

 

Vincent has set his perspective low to the ground – almost a bee’s-eye level – and captured the blooming irises at his feet in a corner of the garden at the hospital.  On a large canvas, he paints no sky and uses a related triad of color from his palette of Orange, Green and Violet.  He is seeking to paint small compositions and consoling views of the nature that surrounds him in the garden of the asylum.  For the first two weeks in Saint Remy, he is contented to stay within the walls and calmed by putting paint on canvas.  Vincent is pleased Irises as a study and Theo thinks it one of Vincent’s best to date when he sees it a few months later in July after it arrives in Paris.  Theo will submit this and Starry Night over the Rhone for Vincent at the Paris Salon des Artistes Independentes in September of 1889 where it will be well received by contemporaries and critics.

 

The related images are a drawing of the corner of the garden where these same irises can be seen in the lower left corner of a larger view from a similar perspective.  This and the painting of lilacs Vincent creates are all done in the same first two weeks of his admission to the Saint Paul asylum at St. Remy.

 

  The cropped composition, cloisson-esque in its broad areas of Vincent’s chosen triad of colors with the subject irises exceeding the canvas borders, was influenced by the Japanese woodblock prints the brothers so enjoyed. His brother Theo thought highly of it and submitted it to the Salon des Indépendants in September 1889, writing Vincent of the exhibition: “It strikes the eye from afar. It is a beautiful study full of air and life.”

 

Each one of Vincent’s irises is almost a work unto itself.  The painting’s first owner, French art critic Octave Mirbeau, one of Van Gogh’s earliest supporters, wrote: “How well he has understood the exquisite nature of flowers!”.  Mirbeau bought the painting from Pere Tanguy, in whose shop it hung after the exhibition.

 

In his review of the exhibition for La Vogue (September 1889), the art critic Félix Fénéon wrote the following about Van Gogh’s paintings: ‘His Irises violently shred their purple parts over their lath-like leaves.”

 

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“My dear Theo,

 

Thanks for your letter. You’re quite right to say that Mr Salles has been perfect in all of this, I’m much obliged to him.  I wanted to tell you that I think I’ve done well to come here, first, in seeing the reality of the life of the diverse mad or cracked people in this menagerie, I’m losing the vague dread, the fear of the thing. And little by little I can come to consider madness as being an illness like any other. Then the change of surroundings is doing me good, I imagine.
As far as I know the doctor here is inclined to consider what I’ve had as an attack of an epileptic nature But I haven’t made any enquiries.  Have you by chance yet received the crate of paintings, I’m curious to know if they’ve suffered more, yes or no. I have two others on the go — violet irises and a lilac bush. Two subjects taken from the garden.  The idea of my duty to work comes back to me a lot, and I believe that all my faculties for work will come back to me quite quickly. It’s just that work often absorbs me so much that I think I’ll always be absent-minded and awkward in getting by for the rest of life too.

I won’t write you a long letter — I’ll try to answer the letter from my new sister, which greatly touched me, but I don’t know if I’ll manage to do it.”

To Theo and Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 9 May 1889

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“Since it’s just the season when there are lots of flowers and thus colour effects, it will perhaps be wise to send me another 5 metres of canvas in addition.  For the flowers will be short-lived and will be replaced by the yellow wheatfields. The latter, above all, I would like to capture better than in Arles. The mistral (since there are a few mountains here) appears far less annoying than in Arles, where you always get it at first hand.

When you receive the canvases I’ve done in the garden you’ll see that I’m not too melancholy here.

 

More soon, good handshake in thought to you and to Jo.

 

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, between about Friday, 31 May and about Thursday, 6 June 1889

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“I’m also enclosing another 7 studies which are dry but which are studies after nature rather than subjects for paintings.

And that’s how it always is, you have to do several of them before you find a whole with character.”

 

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Sunday, 14 or Monday, 15 July 1889

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“Now I must also tell you that the Independents’ exhibition is open and that in it there are your two paintings, ‘The irises’ and the Starry night. The latter is badly placed, for one can’t position oneself far enough away, as the room is very narrow, but the other one looks extremely well. They’ve placed it on the narrow side of the room and it strikes you from a long way off. It’s a fine study, full of air and life.”

Theo to Vincent. Paris, Thursday, 5 September 1889

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“I’ve had several people to see your paintings. Israëls’ son who has been living in Paris for a while, Veth, a Dutchman who does portraits and who writes in De Nieuwe Gids, that journal you’ve perhaps heard about that makes people so indignant but in which good things often appear, and then Van Rijsselberghe, one of the Vingtistes from Brussels, the latter also saw everything there is at Tanguy’s, and your works seem to interest him a great deal.

In Belgium they’re already more accustomed to brightly coloured painting, the Vingtistes’ exhibition did a lot of good in that respect, despite the fact that nobody’s buying anything there. The Independents’ exhibition is finished and I have your irises back; it’s one of your good things. I consider that you’re strongest when you’re doing real things, like that, or like the Tarascon diligence, or the child’s head, or the upright undergrowth with the ivy. The form is so well defined and the whole is full of colour.”

Theo to Vincent. Paris, Tuesday, 22 October 1889

 
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“However bad the Independents’ exhibition was, The Irises were seen by a lot of people who talk to me about them.”

Theo to Vincent. Paris, Saturday, 16 November 1889

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Painting, Oil on Canvas – 71 x 93 cm – Size 30 Figure
Saint-Rémy, France: May 9, 1889
The Getty Museum
Los Angeles, California, United States of America, North America
F: 608, JH: 1691

 

Where Vincent Was:
Saint Remy

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