Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hokusai, Van Gogh and the iris paintings

The irises are blooming at the Ecology Park Pond and I'm trying to get to grips with how to draw them. I've been studying an expert - Vincent Van Gogh - who, in turn took pinters from another expert - the Japanese artist Hokusai. This post comments on their various approaches to iris paintings.

Van Gogh's iris paintings were produced while he was resident in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. He entered the asylum in the early summer of 1889 and in the following year - up until his death in July 1890 - he painted some 130 works.

The iris paintings I've been able to track down are:
  • Irises Saint-Rémy, France, 1889; Oil on canvas 28 x 36 5/8 in. (90.PA.20 Getty Museum - currently on show at The Getty Center, Los Angeles)
  • Irises May 1890. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4 in. (73.7 x 92.1 cm) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Gift of Adele R. Levy, 1958 Accession Number58.187)
  • Irises 1890 Oil on Canvas, 92 x 73.5 cm Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
As a new patient he was confined to the hospital for observation during the period of his assessment. This meant that he could only paint what he could find in the grounds of the hospital.

Irises (Saint-Rémy, France, 1889);
Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890
Oil on canvas 28 x 36 5/8 in

Source: wikimedia

What was present in the overgrown hospital garden were bright blue irises and within the first week, he began Irises, working from nature in the asylum's garden.

(Left) Irises and (right) Iris flowers and grasshopper (1830-31)
woodblock colour prints
Hokusai Katsushika (1760 - 1849)
Source: wikimedia

The Getty Museum Irises is very reminiscent of woodblock prints of irises drawn by Hokusai - two examples of which are illustrated above. The composition is closely cropped although it fails to crop the junction between the irises and the earth as the Hokusai prints do. Nevertheless the irises are emphatically the 'subject' of the piece - perhaps because of the sheer numbers. By way of contrast Hokusai seems to go for a 'less is more' approach (assuming he could also have drawn as many irises as Van gogh - they do tend to grow in big clumps as I have observed down at the pond!

What I also like about the Hokusai prints is the artfully uneven way in which the irises appear on the page and that's an aspect which I think Van Gogh tries to reprise in his paintings. The one thing I'm very clear about now is that they need to have a very unfussy background so that the various shapes and shades can be clearly seen and appreciated.

There's no known drawing of Getty irises painting so it seems likely that it was painted plein air. His brother Theo was very taken with it and submitted it together with The Starry Night, to the exhibition of the Salon des Independants which took place in September 1889.

The following year, Van Gogh again painted Irises but this time he painted four still life pictures of in vases prior to his move to Auvers. Two of these were of blue irises and the inclusion of the irises in a vase necessarily means that the irises are quite crowded - no 'less is more' here.
  • The version which is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a portrait format and the violet blue irises are in an ochre vase against what was originally a citron yellow wall. Van gogh was again exploiting complementary colours and was trying to achieve a vibrant image. What struck me about this painting is how the there seem to be too many irises for the vase and some have fallen out as a result.
  • However the version in the Metropolitan Museum was intended to have a much softer and more harmonious palette of pale blues, greens and pinks. According to his letters the background was originally pale pink - however it is now a very pale ivory white which just goes to show how fugitive pale pink is! The landscape format allows the irises to spread out in a more relaxed way across the canvas - much as they grow in real life but not as sparse as they are represented in the Hokusai prints. This painting was owned by the artist's mother until her death.
All the paintings exploit the very curvy calligraphic shapes and movement of the leaves as well as describing the very similar flowers in any number of slightly different ways.

(part of) Study of irises (after Van gogh) - unfinished
coloured pencils in Sennelier HP
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

How do I know this? Well I've just spent a couple of evenings making a study of the irises in the garden painting and my enormous respect for Van Gogh as a draightsman and keen observer of plant forms has been reinforced yet again.

and finally......

In In87, Van Gogh's Irises sold for £27 million - a world record at the time for the sale of a ork of art. Interestingly that sale was in the wake of a stock market crash and the painting had not been expected to reach this sort of sum! It was sold to Alan Bond who subsequently sold it to the Getty Musuem in Los Angeles.


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  1. You did a great job with the irises. These are a difficult flower to capture, but you did it masterfully. They are some of my favorite flowers.

  2. I was our taking a walk with my lil dog the other day, and in an alley I had taken, I noticed a whole back yard devoted to iris.

    The house itself was a modest small bungalow. The yard was going to become a riot of purple...I must go back and take pics. Thanks for these articles. Beautiful topic
    the Iris...

  3. The Hokusai print "Iris flowers and grasshopper" is currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Musuem in Cambridge

  4. Oh wonderful post. especially since I just came back from the Getty and admired these Irises. I was inspired too and did a sketch on one of my blogs of Irises of my neighbor. Thank you for the added information on Van Gogh

  5. Boy, I know the feeling!!!!

    If I had seen your beautiful irises earlier today, I'd really have thrown in the towel, Katherine. You went to two of my favourite artists for guidance - I didn't know where to turn. Made a horrible mess of a watercolour and then found inspiration in Matisse and a Tombow brush pen. Anyway I'll fill my own blog with my Iris Misery and just enjoy yours:)

  6. Thanks for this interesting post!
    I hope I can go to Basel to see the landscape exhibition.


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