Born in Groot-Zunder, Netherlands in 1853, Vincent van Gogh lived in relative obscurity. Though he is now known as one of the most influential post-impressionist painters, his personal life was characterized by instability in his familial and romantic life as well as his mental health from youth until his death.
As a young boy, he was forced to leave school and begin working at the age of 15. He held a diverse host of jobs ranging from working at galleries to serving as a school teacher and aspired for a period to become a minister. By the fall of 1880, Van Gogh decided to move to Brussels and become an artist, a career which ended abruptly just ten years later when he took his own life.
Beginning at age 15, Van Gogh experienced a series of failed relationships, culminating with the infamous incident in 1888 in which he presented his severed ear to a prostitute, which historians suspect was cut off in a disagreement with friend Paul Gauguin who had served both as a friend and a roommate to Van Gogh at the time of the incident.
Shortly thereafter, Van Gogh checked himself in to the Asylum of Saint Paul at Saint-Remy in Provence to be treated for what his doctors diagnosed as a form of epilepsy. During his one-year stay, Van Gogh created 150 paintings in addition to hundreds of drawings including now iconic works like “Starry Night” as well as The Met’s “Irises” and “Roses.” Originally conceived as a group, The Met’s “Irises” and “Roses” are two of a series of four floral still life paintings that Van Gogh made in May of 1890 in his last days before checking out of the asylum.
From reading letters to his brother Theo, we understand that these four paintings were created in rapid succession over a very brief period. In a letter on May 11, 1890, Van Gogh mentions his “Roses” for the very first time, and in a second letter on May 13, tells Theo he has just completed the aforementioned “Roses” as well as a second canvas featuring roses. On May 16, van Gogh checked out of the hospital, by which time all four canvases had been completed and were left behind to dry when he departed.
In a letter predating his stay at the asylum, Van Gogh wrote, “flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go,” which points to his exceptionally rapid and energetic creative process. This fervor is evident in the works themselves. Demonstrated by the artist’s use of vibrant color, the nearly sculptural impasto of the surface of the canvas, and the definition of each uniquely discernible brushstroke the viewer is made acutely aware of the intensity of the artist at work.
This last month at the asylum was Van Gogh’s most productive. He wrote to his brother, “All goes well. I am doing… two canvases representing big bunches of violet irises, one lot against a pink background in which the effect is soft and harmonious because of the combination of greens, pinks, violets… the other… stands out against a startling citron background, with other yellow tones in the vase and the stand on which it rests, so it is an effect of tremendously disparate complementaries [sic], which strengthen each other by their juxtaposition.”
Largely self-taught, Van Gogh spent the early years of his painting career focused on studying color, and was known to manipulate balls of colored yarn in order to experiment with the relationships between various hues.
Reunited for the first time in The Met’s 2015 exhibition, “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses”, all four paintings demonstrate this thoughtful and dramatic use of color, though a present day viewer must keep in mind that the color in these works have since changed (potentially dramatically so). A result of the light sensitive red lake pigments that the artist used, the Irises appear more blue than their original violet, and the roses now appear more white than their original shade of pink. Scholars agree that these four paintings represent the most dramatic examples of this effect of color fading from within the artist’s oeuvre.
Van Gogh’s lively use of color presents an enigma to art historians. It could speak to his optimistic outlook as he neared the end of his stay at the asylum, and by reading his letters, we know this period as one of the last when the artist expressed happiness.
On the other hand, Van Gogh was acutely aware of the risks of using pigments given their propensity to intense fading when exposed to sunlight. In letters to Theo we can see that Van Gogh specifically requested these volatile pigments, and perhaps desired these works to deteriorate over time. In a similar vein, Van Gogh observation that “paintings fade like flowers” suggests that his intense use of color was an attempt to compensate for fading and to give an dramatic sense of vitality to his delicate and short lived subjects.
After the drying process was complete, these works arrived to Van Gogh’s home in Auvers in late June of 1890, just one month before his untimely death at the age of 37, and remained in the collection of his mother until her own passing. Now two of the most beloved works in The Met collection, “Irises” was the gift of Adele R. Levy in 1958, and “Roses” joined the collection in 1993 as a gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg.