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Vincent Van Gogh Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background
Painted in May 1890, during his voluntary incarceration at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background is one of Van Gogh's most iconic still life paintings, and most of his most overt homages to the Japanese style of woodblock printing. Rendered from life during his final weeks at the asylum, the size, scale, and emotional charge of Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background reminds one of his sunflowers series, painted in the summer of 1888 some two years previously. Yet, unlike the sunflowers series, Van Gogh's irises burst forth from the canvas in a stunning juxtaposition of light and shade, foreground and background. The result is a powerful visual display, joyous to behold, yet beneath which an ominous energy resonates. Rather than softening his palette with pastel shades to offset the stunning clarity of the flowers and the background, Van Gogh heightens them, giving life to a visceral and positive energy.
Accompanied by Still Life: Vase with Irises, painted around the same time, this canvas is often falsely acquainted with his 1889 Irises, painted just before his first nervous breakdown in the asylum. Of this earlier painting the artist commented “it is the lightning conductor for my illness" on account of his tragic hope that he could forestall his declining mental health by focusing on painting. Yet from the chronology of Van Gogh's works and mental collapses, one might venture that his still life works may have held a hidden trigger-effect. It is no coincidence that Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background is one of only a small number of still life canvases painted during his stay at Saint-Rémy. Another possibility may be the allure that the outdoors held for Van Gogh. As the asylum was wonderfully equipped with stunning natural terrain, perhaps the thought of encasing the wild landscape in a vase was anathema to the artist during this period of recuperation.
Shortly after painting his still-life irises, Van Gogh left the asylum and travelled to the north of France, to Auvers-sur-Oise where he would preoccupy himself with still-life canvases until his tragic suicide. This epiphanic canvases is a revelatory work of hope and harmony, of which the artist himself said, “At present all goes well, the whole horrible attack has disappeared like a thunderstorm and I am working to give a last stroke of the brush here with a calm and steady enthusiasm.”
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