Irises by Van Gogh

Irises by Van Gogh: Why This Painting is More Important than You Think

The painting can be an example of calm before the calamity, Irises by Van Gogh was the first painting he made after getting into the Saint-Paul asylum at Saint-Rémy. This turbulent period of life was also the period of excellent creativity, unbearable torment, and perhaps the creation of the most artistic painter of all time. The painting Irises marks a very important point in Van Gogh’s life. A point where he breathed his last breath of calm, before unleashing the calamity. 

First, we’ll analyze the painting, trying to extract the beauties in the brush strokes, the color, and then we’ll look at what this painting showed about Van Gogh, and more importantly, what it meant for him. This is a tiny tale of a miserable tragedy, the desire to rise, and finally coming to terms with life. 

Irises, the painting 

A bunch of flowers all over the place, each having a unique petal structure and slightly different colors, Irises amalgamates so many colors, green being the dominant one. The reddish-brown earth in the bottom, bluish-green blades, reddish-orange marigold, and finally, dark and light green shrubs and leaves. The painting displays a tone of happiness, calmness, and relief.

The style and structure of the painting are inspired by the Japanese woodblock painting. This is why the painting is made with a two-dimensional style with flat subjects. The perspective is frontal, there is no source of light or shadows shown. So all your eyes see are the flowers and the greenery, which Van Gogh noticed and wanted to show. 

The subject of the painting is the irises, navy blue in color with a hint of white, some with more and some with less. What most people miss about this painting is each irises petal that you see has a distinct structure, every flower is unique. There is no planar structure to the painting, no horizontal or vertical symmetry. Van Gogh wanted to capture the view in its raw form, without any artificial manipulation. 

So what we see is an overwhelming bunch of flowers in a wide green field. This is the view the artist got from his asylum, and since this is the first painting he completed there, this is perhaps the first thing that piqued his interest. 

Rather than the conventional image of asylum with drab, dull walls and an insipid environment, Saint Paul was a bit different. It wasn’t crowded, there was a lot of space for each inhabitant and there were more than enough floral companions for each inhabitant, of which most were taken by Van Gogh. 

If you have noticed it or not, but if you look to the left of the canvas, you can see a large, white Iris flower with no hint of blue in it, just a touch of yellow. We’ll come to the possible indications of that singular flower later in this article. 

Why was Irises an important painting for Van Gogh? This painting shows a lack of turmoil, a hint of hope, and a desire for life. This painting showed the positivity inside Van Gogh. Let’s see what Van Gogh’s life could have been, a life he thought he could have.

The Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole
The Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole, Image by EmDee. CC-BY-SA 3.0

The meaning of the painting 

Prior to getting into the asylum, Van Gogh had a troubling time, losing everything he had hoped to build. He planned to start the Yellow House a place for different artists to come and usher their creativity. That failed when he got in an argument with Paul Gauguin, another fellow painter. This is the incident that resulted in the infamous “ear-cutting” by Van Gogh. 

After this devastating event, Van Gogh got into the asylum with a turbulent mind, trying to paint and ease the turbulence. His arrival at Saint Paul eased the turbulence. For the first month, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds and this is when his eyes caught the beautiful sight of the irises. 

In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote that painting is the lightning conductor of his madness. Being in Saint Paul helped him ease his mind. The quiet solace, being in a place where he had so much to paint and so little to worry about. For some time, it seemed that his pain was over. 

The bright colors, the jolly flowers, and a peaceful, beautiful place to work from, it was all Van Gogh wanted, and he was quite happy about it. This painting truly showed the enthusiasm and light within him. 

Although unconfirmed, it is said that when Claude Monet saw this painting, he said “How Did a man who loved flowers and light to such an extent, and who rendered them so well, how, then did he still manage to be so unhappy?” It was after when Van Gogh painted this painting, he started losing himself again. 

The painting was once the most expensive painting, sold at around $54 million. But I think the colors, structure, or style of this painting does not matter. What matters is why this painting was created and what it showed. It showed hope, life, and a desire to do what one loves. This painting was that sunny day in Van Gogh’s life.

Coming to the single, white iris flower in the left of the painting. There is no confirmation of it by the painter, but that single, distinct flower could represent Van Gogh. It could represent him in a peaceful state, at a point in life where he could relax and paint and manage his mental torment. But there’s no way to confirm it, and we know that in the end, that white flower soon becomes bluer and bluer. 

Finally, he was one amongst the many… and then plucked. This concludes the article. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading more about Van Gogh’s great works. Here are some more articles about Van Gogh’s paintings and their analysis.

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