The downside of viewing a large exhibit is that the volume can be overwhelming and works can get overlooked. Sometimes less is best, which is the case with “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses” at the Met—just four paintings to ponder and admire.
The paintings, two of irises and two of roses, were completed during Van Gogh’s last month at the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1890 where he had admitted himself the year before. Brought together for the first time in 125 years, they are beautiful and striking. The paintings can be viewed as symbols of the optimism that Van Gogh felt, which he conveyed in letters to his family as he readied himself for leaving the asylum. Sadly, it didn't last; the artist would commit suicide just a few months later.
Known for his bold colours, Van Gogh was very particular about his paints. One in particular that he insisted on using was geranium lake, a scarlet pigment that was highly unstable, resulting in fading. Van Gogh used the colour in multiple works including these paintings.
"Roses" Vincent Van Gogh (1890)
As a result, the colours in the paintings have changed over time. Using x-ray fluorescence mapping to examine the canvases, curators were able to discover the remains of geranium lake and digitally reconstruct what the paintings may have originally looked liked.
Monitors set up across from the paintings in the exhibit show these reconstructions for comparison. While the now blue irises would have been more violet, the white roses and white backdrops were originally pink—creating a more dramatic look. The vertical roses in the reconstruction are set against a complimentary green and pink backdrop with pale pink roses while the horizontal irises set against pink as opposed to a white seem to be more “Van Gogh.”
While we cannot know for certain exactly how they looked when Van Gogh painted them, it’s fascinating to think about. Whether pink or white, violet or blue, Van Gogh’s irises and roses are gorgeous.
“Van Gogh: Irises and Roses” is at the Met through August 16, 2015. For more information, visit here.