Vincent van Gogh painted Irises shortly after he voluntarily admitted himself into the St.-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. Irises was painted in the garden to the south of the men’s quarters - the only area Van Gogh was permitted to work during the first month of his confinement. The scene is a symphony of vibrant colours with the magnificent violet iris petals dominating the rich red soil and the bright orange marigolds in the background.
In May, 1889 Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo:
“Have you received the case of pictures? I am anxious to know whether or not they have suffered. I am working on two others—some violet irises and a lilac bush, two subjects taken from the garden.”
Later, in the same letter Vincent writes to his sister-in-law Johanna about the conditions of the asylum:
“Though here there are some patients very seriously ill, the fear and horror of madness that I used to have has already lessened a great deal. And though here you continually hear terrible cries and howls like beasts in a menagerie, in spite of that people get to know each other very well and help each other when their attacks come on. When I am working in the garden, they all come to look, and I assure you they have the discretion and manners to leave me alone—more than the good people of the town of Arles, for instance.”
Van Gogh shipped the completed Irises to Theo in Paris and his brother was extremely taken with the painting. Theo submitted the work to the Salon des Indépendents in September, 1889.
Theo wrote to Vincent:
“Now I still have to tell you that the exhibition of the Indépendents 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.”
While on display at the Salon Irises caught the attention of the critic Félix Fénéon who wrote “The Irises violently slash into long strips, their violet petals on sword-like leaves.” Years after the exhibition the writer Octave Mirbeau would acquire Irises (see provenance below) and his conversation about the painting with Claude Monet was recalled by the French journalist Léon Daudet:
I can once again see, though it was many years ago, Monet speaking with Mirbeau about another famous painter, Vincent van Gogh, on the subject of a path of irises, a canvas that in Mirbeau’s nervous, blond-haired hands gloriously shimmered in the light. “How,” Monet was saying, “did a man who loved flowers and light to such an extent, and who rendered them so well, how, then did he still manage to be so unhappy?”
There has been some speculation about the symbolic import of Irises. Some feel that the lone, white iris was Van Gogh’s depiction of himself in the asylum—isolated and detached from the rest of the staff and inmates. Such interpretation is, of course, completely subjective and neither Vincent nor Theo’s correspondence put forth any such suggestions.