My favorite painting of Van Gogh’s is Irises, which he painted during his first month at the St. Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. In fact, I have a tapestry of it hanging in my dorm room. I could go on about his use of color, brushstrokes, and how he expertly conveyed the curves of the petals, but I’m more interested in the irises themselves. Van Gogh is most often associated with his sunflowers – and for good reason. He painted five canvases of sunflowers, utilizing his favorite color, yellow, in all of them. This, plus the popular idea that Van Gogh ate yellow paint because it was a happy color (which is not entirely true), promotes these sunflowers to the public as his prize paintings. Van Gogh painted roses, daisies, carnations, and many other types of flowers, too, but it’s the irises that I feel most drawn to. They feel the most real.
By real, I’m speaking metaphorically. I don’t mean that they are painted the most realistically, but rather that they feel the most human, at least to me. This could be simply because I had irises growing in front of my house growing up, so I do have an emotional attachment to them, but I believe it is also because of the flower itself. Irises are not by any means perfect. They have an odd, elongated shape, with the inner petals refusing to adhere to the laws of gravity. The contrast of the outer petals curving downwards while the inner ones remain curved up provides a sense of rigidity and stubbornness, which juxtaposes nicely with their royal purple coloring. Flowers like roses and daisies are often considered pretty in a dainty, fragile way, where petals fall off in your hands and you can make wishes on each one. Flowers like irises and sunflowers, on the other hand, are beautiful as well as strong and defiant. I think that is an inspiring metaphor for humans.
It is therefore interesting to think of irises in the context of Van Gogh’s life. From the start, he was set up to be the perfect son; his parents named him after his older brother who had died in childhood, but this placed great expectations on young Vincent that he could not live up to. He strayed from his path towards becoming a priest to become an artist. His lived his life in debt to his brother, Theo – who supported his art both financially and emotionally – trying to make paintings that would sell. Van Gogh dreamed of such a happy life, longing to love someone and to be loved by them in return, but fell short every time. He was clouded by darkness for much of his life, yet he was able to find beauty in nature, and depicted all of his love through his art.
It makes sense, then, that Van Gogh was drawn to these interesting flowers. Many people thought he was strange, but we know that there was more to him than that. Perhaps Van Gogh found himself in these weird purple flowers: oddly shaped and beautiful because of it, not in spite of it. Their stubbornness and will to fight reflects Van Gogh’s decision to admit himself to St. Paul de Mausole asylum. Irises embody the human urge to continue, to keep moving forward. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to it, too. Looking at an iris gives you the feeling that there’s more to it than what you physically see. Like irises, humans come in many different colors, and each of us is beautiful in our own way. Every individual has their own quirks, things that others may find weird or unusual, but I think that makes us even more beautiful. Our will to fight through even the toughest of times is inspiring, both as an artist and as a person. Van Gogh was determined throughout his life to make a name for himself, but his greatest ambition was happiness, something all humans strive for. Irises, therefore, reflects Van Gogh’s willingness to find this happiness wherever he went. Through his paintings, he encouraged viewers to do the same.