For a painting simply of flowers, there's a lot of meaningful history behind it. Here are some key facts and ideas:
- Van Gogh painted Irises in 1889 during his stay at the Saint-Paul asylum. This was a tragic yet prolific time for van Gogh. He painted over 100 other works, including The Starry Night. He died shortly after in 1890.
- He wrote to his brother Theo about the painting in May 1889. You can read that letter here. Theo later submitted Irises to the exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. See the below extract from Theo's letter.
"Now I still have to tell you that the exhibition of the Independents is open, and that your two pictures are there, the “Irises” and “The Starlit Night.” The latter is hung badly, for one cannot put oneself at a sufficient distance, as the room is very narrow, but the other one makes an extremely good showing. They have put it on the narrow wall of the room, and it strikes the eye from afar. It is a beautiful study full of air and life." Theo van Gogh, Letter to Vincent, September 1889
- It was one of four paintings of irises. Below are the others.
- It's ranked as one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. Ironic, considering van Gogh spent most of his life in poverty and turmoil. That's the chaos and harmony of life. It's currently owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Shape is a key feature of the painting. Van Gogh went so far as to outline many of them with dark blue, giving an illustrator-like feel. He was likely influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints which he collected in Paris.
There's a pleasant contrast between the wonderful organic shapes used for the flowers and the flowing, S-like shapes used for the leaves. See the image below.
Van Gogh was brilliant at simplifying complex scenes into these basic artistic elements. That's why his paintings are so popular. He was able to distill all life's complexity, turmoil, and overwhelming detail into beautiful works of art. But don't confuse simple with easy. It's easy to add more complexity to a painting. It's incredibly difficult to reduce complexity without compromising the painting's essence.
The background is relatively busy compared to most paintings. This draws your attention away from the main flowers, but it plays well into the idea of nature's vastness.
It's a colorful painting, as you would expect from van Gogh. But it's not garish or overdone. All the colors work in natural harmony.
There's a pleasant balance between warm and cool colors. Warm being the reds, oranges, and yellows in the foreground and background. Cool being the pale greens and rich blues of the irises. There are also two pairs of complementary colors: orange and blue; red and green. Complementary colors oppose each other on the color wheel and have a striking contrast when paired. Typically, you would build a painting around one pair of complementary colors, with one dominant color and one supporting color. Balancing two pairs of complementary colors is no easy task. Do it poorly and you might end up with a garish mess of color.
Van Gogh made clever use of bright accents throughout the painting. Notice the yellow dabs in the rich blue flowers; and the yellow and orange flowers scattered throughout the background.
Colorful accents like this work because they appear both balanced and interesting. Balanced in that a small area of bright color can pack the same punch as a large quiet area. Interesting in that they help our eyes jump around the painting.
There are several color groupings: the red ground, the pale green plants, the rich blue flowers, and the warm background. This is a form of simplification. It gives the otherwise busy scene a sense of organization.
The painting doesn't have a strong value structure. There's hardly any rendering of light and shadow, I struggle to see any cast shadows, and I couldn't tell you where light is coming from.
Does it matter in this painting? Not really, as van Gogh focused more on color and shape.
Here's the painting in grayscale:
A few observations:
- Apart from the white blossom and a few dark accents, the painting is compressed around the middle-value range.
- The dark accents help outline the major shapes.
- It's interesting to see how much the white blossom stands out in the grayscale. But in the full-color painting, it's muted by the rich surrounding colors.
- The background can almost be split in half: a dark half on the left and a light half on the right. This adds depth to the painting, as the light half suggests more distance. This also creates a very subtle pattern of light subject against dark background; dark subject against light background. See my image below.
In Photoshop, I created a three-value notan of the painting (see below). This is what the painting looks like if you were to paint it with just black, gray, and white. It's not a strong or concise design, with values scattered all over the place. I'm showing you this to demonstrate that, whilst value is important, it's not the be-all-end-all in painting. That's provided you make good use of the other artistic elements, as van Gogh did with color and shape.
For comparison, here's a notan of Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit. The subject is clear even with only two values. This is a strong and concise notan design.
Van Gogh's brushwork seems bold yet careful. I imagine he painted with intense focus and a large, fully-loaded brush.
Notice how his brushwork follows nature's contours. This reiterates the sense of form and injects a sense of movement. The ground in particular is full of life.
Tip: You can use brushwork and texture to create interest in otherwise bland areas (a clear blue sky, the wall of a building, or in this case, soil and rocks).
Below are some close-ups of his brushwork. The Getty Museum also has an incredibly high-resolution version of the painting here.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- Look to nature if you're lacking inspiration.
- For every bit of life's chaos, there's beauty and harmony. Van Gogh produced some of his most stunning works during his most troubled times.
- For many, painting is much more than creating things that are easy on the eye. Van Gogh sought sanity in painting. He lived to paint.
- The art world can be cruel. Van Gogh lived in poverty, yet his Irises now ranks as one of the most expensive paintings of all time.
I'll finish with this: A simple painting can have a profound impact on others. Van Gogh had no idea about the impact his simple painting of flowers would have on the world. For artist Erin Hanson, it was the spark of her painting career (see her quote below). Who knows how many others van Gogh has influenced in the same way.
"This (Irises) was the painting that made me want to become an impressionist oil painter, at age 7. I started taking oil painting classes soon afterwards." Erin Hanson