Irises, Vincent Van Gogh
At $53.9 million, Vincent van Gogh Irises became the most expensive artwork ever sold at an auction, when it was purchased at a Sotheby auction in 1987. Although the record has been trumped a handful of times since the sale, it had broken the record at the time and held onto it for two years before being replaced by another Van Gogh piece. Van Gogh’s work always seems to sell high, but Irises appears to be significantly more valuable than the bulk of his other work. So, what is it exactly that makes Van Gogh Irises such a highly valued work of art?
From the surface, Van Gogh Irises just looks like an average flower portrait without much of anything else featured. The viewer can see an extensive flower garden with deep blue and purple irises in the foreground, framed by various gold-colored flowers in the background. The painting is said to have been influenced by a popular style of the Japanese art of the time, reflecting this style through strong outlines, unconventional viewpoints, and an interesting coloring that indicates no identifiable lighting angle.
However, digging deeper into the portrait and researching the background story will reveal an emotional and inspirational story behind the seemingly ordinary painting. The painting was done during the last year of Van Gogh’s life, which was unfortunately spent in the confines of an asylum. The irises painted were modeled after the irises featured in the garden of the asylum, where Van Gogh would sit for hours during his treatment. Longtime admirers of Van Gogh’s paintings will notice a lack of precision in Irises that is not customary of the artist’s previous work.
This lack of precision is explained in part by a quote by Van Gogh himself where he describes the painting as “the lightning conductor for my illness.” In other words, the painting gave Van Gogh focus and direction while he was in the asylum to prevent going insane. The “lightning rod” could be a description of Van Gogh channeling his thoughts and emotions to give them structure and avoid the chaos of allowing them to roam free within his mind. This idea of using art to sublimate unpleasant thoughts and emotion is one that has been echoed and endorsed by philosophers and experts of psychology for centuries.
Van Gogh himself claimed that Irises was a study, which is why no previous drawings of the piece have ever been recovered. This fact indicates that Irises was, ironically, the painter’s most freely painted artwork, created while he was anything but free in the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum. His brother Theo described the painting as being visually striking both up close and at a distance, later calling it “a beautiful study full of air and life.”
Perhaps the value of the painting comes from the realization that Van Gogh’s spirit and artistic inclination was not the least bit stifled by his current state of mind or his current surroundings. Van Gogh Irises solidified the artist’s place in art history as a natural and profoundly gifted painter, whose talent is even reflected in a portrait done in a time of severe mental distress and with little preparation. For those who can truly appreciate and admire the depth of artistic talent, Van Gogh Irises represents the resilient nature of a talented mind and the artist’s undying devotion to his own remarkable gift.