Van Gogh, Irises
Getty Conversations

Behind this iconic painting by Vincent van Gogh is the artist’s inspiring story about healing.

A conversation with Dr. Scott Allan, Associate Curator, Paintings Department, Getty Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker, Executive Director, Smarthistory, in front of Irises, 1889, Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas, 74.3 x 94.3 cm. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Behind this iconic painting by Vincent van Gogh is the artist’s inspiring story about healing, as he struggled with the challenges of a psychiatric disorder. Learn more about this period in his life in which he produced some of his most famed work.

Getty has joined forces with Smarthistory to bring you an in-depth look at select works within our collection, whether you’re looking to learn more at home or want to make art more accessible in your classroom. This six-part video series illuminates art history concepts through fun, unscripted conversations between art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists, committed to a fresh take on the history of visual arts.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the Getty Center, looking at one of the most recognized canvases by Vincent van Gogh. This is “Irises.” It was painted in 1889.

Dr. Scott Allan: [0:15] Soon after he voluntarily checked himself into an asylum at Saint-Rémy in Provence, in France, not far from Arles, where he had been staying. He had had a mental health crisis. There’s the famous episode of the cutting of the ear when Gauguin was temporarily living with him.

[0:33] That turned out very badly for both. After Gauguin left, he was hospitalized in Arles, and eventually he checked himself in at Saint-Rémy.

[0:41] In the initial weeks, my understanding is that he was on some kind of medical watch and he was not really leaving the grounds, but he had access to the slightly wild, overgrown walled garden inside the asylum.

[0:55] That’s where he found his first subjects to paint as he began this recovery process, and something about working very intently from the natural beauty that he found in this site was very important to his recovery.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] I know that he had been concerned that he would retain the ability to paint while he was there. In fact, the asylum granted him a second room, one that he could use as a studio.

Dr. Allan: [1:19] Despite these difficult personal circumstances, it actually ended up being an incredibly productive and fertile time for him as an artist. Something about the close study of nature, that’s where he really had his grounding as an artist.

[1:32] He wasn’t interested in too much imaginative invention, he needed to work from the model and he brought a lot of subjective intensity to that, which I think you can feel here in the intense colors, the surging rhythms of the blade-like leaves of the irises, and these brilliant contrasting colors.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] The word that comes to my mind is, honestly, architecture of those blossoms, the way each one is completely individual and there are volumes and spaces and lines that are completely unique to each flower.

[2:06] We are so close to these flowers that I get a sense of where the artist was situating himself in relationship to them. The space is complicated. It’s compressed, but I feel like I only need to reach my fingers out a few inches to touch the petals.

[2:22] He’s gotten down low, so that the flowers almost stand as if they were human presences.

Dr. Allan: [2:29] The viewpoint is very interesting to think about. You think of him sitting or kneeling right down. It’s interesting to think about how you categorize a work like this. It’s not exactly a landscape. It doesn’t have the extent and the space and the view that one associates with landscape. It’s not exactly a still life either.

[2:48] If you think about the word still life — or the French version of that word, nature morte, dead nature — you think of a bouquet arranged in a vase. That’s exactly what he’s not doing here. These are flowers that are still rooted in the earth and that are intensely alive. It’s decidedly not a picture of dead nature or still life. It’s a picture of moving life attached to the earth.

[3:10] He himself referred to the picture simply as a study, étude, which in French has very specific connotations in artistic studio-speak of something that’s done directly after nature. That’s what a study is. The idea of a study after nature is about the best way we can describe a picture like this.

[3:29] There’s a long European tradition, especially in northern European countries, for very intense close-up studies of nature. If you think about Albrecht Dürer and his famous “Patch of Turf,” this is the Post-Impressionist equivalent of that.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] But in the Dürer, there’s almost a sense of the botanical study. Here, there’s a vitality and energy that feels more wild and more emphatic.

Dr. Allan: [3:53] It’s that graphic genius of his art combined with the lessons of color that he learned in a very short period of time in Paris, where he absorbed the lessons of both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, Pointillism, in a space of two years, completely transformed his art, and then goes to Provence and starts painting things like this.

[4:16] He’s coming out of French Impressionism, but his work is definitely not about light and color and atmospheric effects here. He’s interested in these specific natural forms.

[4:25] The French avant-garde are concerned with this idea of complementary contrast, where you take two colors on opposite ends of the color wheel, you put them together, and they mutually enhance each other. You put red and green together, that intensifies both colors simultaneously.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] For that matter, purples or violets and yellow. We see both of those combinations here.

Dr. Allan: [4:46] You have all these red tones in the earth, juxtaposed with the wonderful greens of the iris blades. There are a few moments where he’s got a more intense stroke of red siding right up to the leaf.

[5:01] Then you have the wonderful blue-violet of the petals of the irises in conversation with yellows and oranges, and varying his brushwork in ways that brings them out and attends to them.

[5:11] You have these smooth brushstrokes in the blades, carefully outlined. And then these wonderful directional strokes in the petals of the irises, where he creates the sense of volume and the curvings in and out.

Dr. Zucker: [5:25] It is almost as if the artist is here inventing a new genre, a new type of painting. This wonderful vacuum between still life and landscape and botanical study, but the artist is also drawing on art from Japan.

Dr. Allan: [5:40] Starting in the 1860s, the craze for Japanese art starts mounting. By the 1880s, it was a major point of artistic reference for western European avant-garde, and Van Gogh was a dedicated collector of Japanese prints. The motif of irises is central to a lot of Japanese art.

[6:02] These are specifically Provençal irises, but the way he’s arranged them in this amazing asymmetrical frieze in this compressed space, that very daring cropping of the flowers by the bottom framing edge, these are lessons that he’s learning from Japanese prints.

Dr. Zucker: [6:20] I think it’s so important to reference Van Gogh’s study of the art of Japan, his study of the art of the North, and his study of modernism in Paris, because it undermines some of the mythology that surrounds this artist. That he was simply painting through his sensibility.

Dr. Allan: [6:36] For a relatively compressed period of time, the last less than 10 years of his life, his art grew by leaps and bounds. He assimilated so much, and he sought out those different cultural points of reference, whether it’s what was the latest in the avant-garde in Paris, what was most interesting about Japanese art. Then also these Northern artistic traditions that he had inherited, and a picture like this amazingly synthesizes all of these things.

[7:03] Injecting that close-up study with nature with such a strong degree of personality, he’s enhancing the vitality of the flowers through all these stylistic elements. But that’s how we also feel his subjectivity as an artist, through all of those same things.

[7:18] So it’s this really interesting intensification of the objective and the subjective, and where you draw the line between the two is complicated in this. It’s very much grounded and rooted in the confrontation of the artist with nature.

[7:31] [music]

View this work on the Getty Museum’s website

A Rare Opportunity to Study Van Gogh’s Irises (Getty Art Stories, May 18, 2021)

Jennifer Helvey, Irises: Vincent van Gogh in the Garden (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Musuem 2009).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”irisesgetty,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Scott Allan and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Van Gogh, Irises
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, March 28, 2022, accessed June 13, 2024,