Irises (1889) – Vincent Van Gogh

“Irises” held the record for the most expensive artwork 1987 when it sold for $53.9 million USD, which would be around $100 million in the current economy.

The painting was among nearly 130 artworks Van Gogh completed during his stay in a mental institution at Saint-Remy the year prior to his death.

“Irises” was the first painting Van Gogh started after arriving at the asylum. The flowers were growing in a garden in the small outdoor area where the artist was allowed to stroll and sit.

In all, Vincent did four studies of the iris. The first, “Irises,” showed a bed of purple irises with a single white blossom, and the second, “The Iris” showed a smaller patch of flowers with only a single blossom, both of which he painted soon after his arrival at Saint-Remy. The third and fourth artworks featuring irises, painted a year later, were still life treatments of cut flowers in vases. One had a vibrant yellow background while the other had a pink one.

Each iris petal in the “Irises” painting is unique, featuring different shading, shape and size. Only one blossom, however, is a completely different colour.

“Irises” has been part of many art exhibitions throughout the world over the years, but only one of them, the 1889 Salon des Independents exhibition in Paris, occurred prior to Van Gogh’s death. His brother Theo had submitted it.

The painting has been bought and sold a dozen times, the last being a 1990 purchase by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, where the artwork remains to the present day. The museum refused to disclose the price it paid for Van Gogh’s masterpiece, citing its customary non-disclosure policy.

Van Gogh created a balanced background for his first “Irises” painting, dividing the background into brown, purple, and green/yellow sections that impose order while underscoring the energy and motion of the purple blossoms and green leaves.

As in some of the art of other 19th century artists such as Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne, Vincent’s painting style was influenced by the composition and character of Japanese woodblock art prints of an earlier era, which he collected while staying with Theo in Paris. This influence is apparent in the divisions of colour in “Irises,” the close-up view of the flowers that does not include the sky, and the way that the irises seem to flow right off the edges of the canvas.

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