Vincent Van Gogh Departs the Asylum With Irises and Roses

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A woman films a Vincent Van Gogh work of irises at Budapest's Museum of Fine Arts December 1, 2006. The exhibition "Van Gogh: Irises and Roses," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, reunites four paintings by Van Gogh of irises and roses for the first time since the artist's death and is timed to coincide with the blooming of the flowers that captured his attention. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Van Gogh: Irises and Roses is on display though August 16.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) brought his work in Provence to a close with exuberant bouquets of spring flowers. A year had gone by since he decamped from Arles, in May 1889, to take refuge at the nearby asylum at Saint-Rémy, and his release from institutional life was in sight. He had just rebounded from the latest attack of mental illness (diagnosed by his doctors as a form of epilepsy), which had robbed him of the early blossoming of a season that was now in full bloom.

Keen to impart a "calm, unremitting ardor" to his "last stroke of the brush," in the pocket of time he had left before boarding the northbound train, he gathered large bunches of flowers from the cloistered garden that he had depicted upon his arrival, and stole off to the spare room in the men's ward that sufficed as his makeshift studio. He set to work, flush from the success his Sunflowers (1888) had enjoyed in back-to-back exhibitions in Brussels and Paris.

Having neglected still life during his year-long hospital stay, Van Gogh painted this group of bouquets—two of irises, two of roses—in contrasting color schemes and formats. Conceived as a series or ensemble, on a par with the Sunflower decoration he made for the Yellow House in Arles, the quartet essentially picks up where that "symphony in blue and yellow" left off, extending his repertoire with a fitting finale—a presto.

The bouquets took shape in swift and almost seamless succession. Van Gogh paused only once, when he shifted his focus from irises to roses. It was at this juncture—after six days of silence—that he sent a progress report to his brother Theo, on May 11, 1890.

Leading off with current news, he briefly mentioned "a canvas of roses" (so vaguely as to fit either version) and backtracked from there, elaborating with telling detail on the two Irises that he had already resolved. On May 13, he wrote Theo that he had "just finished" the second Roses.

Van Gogh chose canvases corresponding in size, anchored each composition with a slightly off-center vase, and unified them with a common horizon line. He then engaged the power of contrast, giving full reign to the pairing of opposites (color, format, and floral motif) that would complement and enhance one another in juxtaposition.

Orchestrated around two sets of complementary colors—yellow and violet, pink and green, varied for different expressive effects—the series follows the arc of the artist's evolving sensibility as a colorist, advancing from the high-keyed palette of Arles to the subtler tonalities he came to use in Saint-Rémy.

Van Gogh checked himself out of the hospital on May 16, 1890, with renewed confidence in his work of the past few days—it had been a "revelation of color." Left behind to dry, the paintings were sent to him in Auvers, arriving in late June, a month before he died.

They were dispersed soon after and have not been seen together since. In the interim, they have lost their original brilliance, owing to his use of very light-sensitive red lake pigments that have faded, turning the irises from violet to blue and the roses from pink to white. Within these supremely economical compositions—two motifs, four colors—the loss is laid bare. Never has Van Gogh's observation—"paintings fade like flowers"—been more compelling.

In this exhibition, the Metropolitan's Irises and Roses are joined by their counterparts, the upright Irises from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the horizontal Roses, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. They are presented in the order in which they were made and in identical frames, adapted from the artist's profile but designed to be unobtrusive, so that the unfolding logic and verve of his four-part painting campaign may be appreciated for the first time in 125 years—and puzzled out anew.

Irises

Van Gogh routinely teased out his originality as a colorist in paintings of flowers, from the mixed arrangements he made in Paris to update his lackluster Dutch palette, to the single-floral bouquets he undertook in Arles that cleared the way for using "color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully."

As he fixed his appreciative gaze on nature, while holding the "laws of color" in his mind's eye, he invested still life with ever-greater brilliance and vitality. He knew that "flowers wilt quickly and it's a matter of doing the whole thing in one go."

No flower was more evocative for the artist who had come "to see color under a stronger sun in more Japanese clarity" than irises.

Redolent of springtime in the south of France and of motifs in ukiyo-e prints that Van Gogh avidly collected, irises had captivated his attention in May for two years running. In 1888, he painted the stately purple flowers against a field of bright yellow buttercups in a panoramic view of Arles—a veritable "Japanese dream." He depicted them at closer range in 1889, angling for space in the overgrown hospital garden in a "fine study, full of air and life," as Theo reported of the work's eye-catching allure when it was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris that fall.

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'Irises', 1890, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Irises, 1890, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Van Gogh tackled this still life in earnest, with thick, vigorous brushwork, bent upon extracting the savage beauty of the flowers, densely packed into an earthenware vase. The painting takes its cue from the triumphant "high yellow note" of the Sunflowers and harkens back to the emphatic contrasts he favored in Arles.

Reprising the color scheme of his 1888 view of irises paired with buttercups and channeling the boldness of Delacroix—"the greatest colorist of them all"—he placed the violet irises "against a striking lemon yellow background with other yellow tones in the vase and the base" for an "effect of terribly disparate complementaries, that reinforce each other by their opposition."

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'Irises', 1890. The Met's exhibition brings together for the first time the quartet of flower paintings—two of irises, two of roses, in contrasting formats and color schemes—that Van Gogh made on the eve of his departure from the asylum at Saint-Rémy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Irises, 1890, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Adele R. Levy, 1958 (58.187)

The strident insistency of the upright Irises gives way to unhesitating ease. Sinuous strokes of paint trace the lively sway of careening blossoms and sweeping arabesques of leaves that relax into the expanse of a wider format. The bouquet's breadth handily accommodated by his washbasin pitcher, Van Gogh set the irises against a "pink background," intending a contrary effect: "harmonious and soft through the combination of pinks, greens, and violets."

Van Gogh's interest in realizing subdued tonal harmonies with a muted palette, partial to pinks and greens, had taken root over the winter in his Olive Orchard series. Inspired by the work of Puvis de Chavannes, he relied on a similarly "discreet range" of hues to suggest a "vague memory softened by time"—a phrase that resonates with the faint reminder that the white background now gives of its once-pink color.

Roses

Van Gogh continued to flex the expressive potential of complementary contrast as he turned from long-stemmed irises to softly rounded roses. East meets West in the pairing of flowers that he associated, respectively, with ukiyo-e printmakers and Impressionist painters who had been touchstones for his invention.

From the unruly abundance of the asylum's parklike garden, Van Gogh alit upon a rose distinctive to the region—a variety known as Roses de Provence—hence ensuring local color along with the very colors he felt "expressed the mood" of springtime: pink and green. He had specially ordered narrow fitch brushes to vivify the vital character of the flower (often referred to as a "hundred-petaled rose").

In this second set of bouquets, Van Gogh explores the same contrary effects, again reserving the horizontal composition for a "harmonious and soft" effect and the upright version for the "disparate" juxtaposition of complementaries (pink and green).

Savvy when it came to color, from theory to practice, Van Gogh ordered his paints with care and factored in the potential risk of using bright pigments known to lose their vibrancy by applying them boldly, or "too raw," anticipating "time will only soften them too much." Such efforts proved futile when it came to highly fugitive red lakes, in general, and more particularly, here, as he honed to a palette of hues diluted with white, aiming for greater subtlety, much of it now lost to fading.

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'Roses', 1890. The exhibit opened in May, exactly 125 years to the week that Van Gogh announced he was working on these “large bouquets” in letters to his brother dated May 11 and 13, 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roses, 1890, oil on canvas, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of W. Averell Harriman, 1991

Van Gogh had presumably just begun this "canvas of roses on a light green background" when he described it to Theo, on May 11, 1890. Over the next couple of days, he would flesh out the details (for example, the vase's color) and complete the second version.

This is the only one of the four bouquets that shows any revisions. Van Gogh explored different strategies for animating the background. He also revisited the composition, once the paint had partially dried, to add the sprays of flowers at the foot of the vase.

To guarantee harmony as he brought Roses into the fold, he reintroduced the same earthenware vase seen in the upright Irises—at an identical angle in resonant yellow tones—and shifted the fallen fronds from right to left as a counterpoint to the irises' broken stems.

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'Roses', 1890. The works will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 16, 2015. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roses, 1890, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1993.400.5)

On May 13, 1890, Van Gogh signed off on this series and his last letter to Theo from Provence—with valedictory aplomb. "I've just finished this canvas of pink roses against a yellow-green background in a green vase," he wrote, adding, "I feel absolutely serene, and the brushstrokes come to me and follow each other very logically."

Rivaling the robust simplicity of a still life of peonies by Manet that he had long admired—"as much in harmony and as much a flower as anything you like"—Van Gogh set forth his riposte, echoing its color scheme and its bravura, down to the fallen blossoms made with just a few sure flicks of the brush.

The Metropolitan's Roses and Irises belonged to the artist's mother until her death in 1907. By this date, the once-pink roses that had hung in her vestibule were described as white.

Irises and Roses: A Note on Their Early History

The paintings were dispersed shortly after Van Gogh's death, in July 1890, and have not been seen together since. The Roses now in the National Gallery was purchased in June 1891 by the French collector and bibliophile Paul Gallimard, apparently just after it was shown in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris (no. 1200, "Roses").

The others were shipped to the Netherlands. Retained by the family estate and now in the Van Gogh Museum, the upright Irises, which the artist seems to have been partial to—as suggested by a sketch he made after the picture, in Auvers, when he was musing over the idea of a print series dedicated to his works in Provence—was likely the "Bouquet d'Iris" featured in the memorial tribute held in February 1891 with Les XX in Brussels (no. 4).

The Metropolitan's Irises and Roses belonged to Van Gogh's mother, who kept them until her death in 1907; by this date the once-pink Roses that had hung in the vestibule of her home in The Hague was described as "white." Additional documentation on the history of these works may be found by clicking on the images above.

Seeing these familiar paintings together presents a fuller picture, as it were, of Van Gogh's genius. They encapsulate what was fundamental to his artistic thinking and working practice (including pigment choices that proved unsound), as he aimed for "simplicity in bright color" and to "paint in such a way that...everyone who has eyes can understand."

This quartet has an added distinction: It was a coda to his ongoing efforts to extract the expressive potential of his means, in successive series of works, conceived in tandem with one another and as part of a larger whole, one that he imagined might "form a kind of ensemble, 'Impressions of Provence.'"

Van Gogh: Irises and Roses continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 16, 2015.