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Gogh, Vincent van - The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY

Vincent van Gogh: Irises and Roses

The exuberant bouquets of spring flowers that punctuate Van Gogh’s work in Provence will be reunited in Van Gogh: Irises and Roses at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition (12.05.2015 - 16.08.2015) will bring together for the first time the quartet of flower paintings -two of irises, two of roses, in contrasting formats and color schemes - that 

 made on the eve of his departure from the asylum at Saint-Rémy in which he sought to impart a “calm, unremitting ardor” to the “last stroke of the brush.” Conceived as a series or ensemble on a par with the Sunflowers decoration painted earlier in Arles, the group includes the Metropolitan Museum’s Irises and Roses and their counterparts: the uprightIrises from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the horizontal Roses from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The presentation is timed to accord with the blooming of the flowers that had captivated the artist’s attention, opening 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. It will offer a revealing look at the signature still lifes in a singular context, inviting reconsideration of his artistic aims and the impact of dispersal and color fading on his intended results.

Van Gogh worked with steady enthusiasm on the suite of irises and roses during his last week at the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he had taken refuge since the previous May (for a condition diagnosed by his doctors as a form of epilepsy). With his release from institutional life in sight, he marked the end of his stay with flowers from the overgrown garden he had depicted upon his arrival, bringing his work in Saint-Rémy full circle. At the same time, he extended his repertoire of still life painting (which had suffered neglect in the interim) with an admirable sequel to the glorious Sunflowers series of Arles. 

They were painted while he was packing his belongings for his move to Auvers, in the wake of an incapacitating breakdown that had robbed him of early spring—a pocket of time he likened to the calm after the storm. Completed just three days before he boarded the northbound train, the bouquets took shape in swift succession. He was determined to make up for lost time, to prove he had not lost his touch, and to make the “last strokes” count. Van Gogh’s facility of execution matched the rigor of his conception. He relied on canvases corresponding in size and composition, each anchored by a slightly off-center vase and unified by a common horizon line. Within the group he paired the works by subject, format, and style, engaging them in a rich dialogue of contrasts, the whole governed by the assertive play of contrasting complementaries—yellows/violets, pinks/greens—used in different combinations for different expressive effects. These ranged, as Van Gogh noted of the violet irises, from the “effect of terribly disparate complementaries” of the bouquet against a yellow background, to the “soft and harmonious” effect of the bouquet against pink.

Left behind to dry sufficiently, the paintings arrived in Auvers in late June, a month before Van Gogh died. They were dispersed by the following spring. Like their group dynamic, the colors and effects he had intended are no longer intact owing to his use of light-sensitive pigments. The chrome yellows have darkened slightly, and the highly fugitive red lakes have faded almost completely. In turn, the violet irises are nearly blue, the pink background and pink roses almost white. The carefully plotted color relationships (within and between the works), the integrity of various details, and the intensity of overall expression have been lost in the balance.
Despite these casualties—which are endemic to Van Gogh’s mature work as a whole, given his penchant for working in series and bright red lakes—the pictures were invested with enough wall power to hold their own. (The two in the Metropolitan’s collection had held a place on the walls of his mother’s house until her death in 1907; by then, the once-pink roses that had hung in her vestibule, were described as “white.”) (Text: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)