In our over-stimulating world of art fairs, gallery exhibitions and pop-up shows, it is a delight to visit the small rotunda at the Metropolitan Museum Lehman Pavilion which has just four works of art on display.  Installed in the sequence they were painted by Vincent Willem Van Gogh (1853-1890), the paintings are a joyous welcome to spring time after our long winter months. Timed to coincide with the 125th anniversary of a letter to his brother, which described this project, the wall text with the pictures and on- line video describe the intensity of this experience for the artist.

Painted in the monastery of St. Paul de Mausole near St. Remy, France, Vincent created them while he was hospitalized there in 1888 after prolonged bouts with depression, anxiety, and illnesses resulting from excesses of tobacco and absinthe. In the quiet of the hospital grounds, Vincent found solace in the wonders of the spring blossoms. He cut four canvases from one bolt of fabric which was discovered in recent radiography of the pictures. Two of the compositions are vertical and the others are a pair of horizontal works. We know from the horticultural specialists at the New York Botanical Garden that he painted purple Bearded Iris, (iris hybrida) and the Provence Rose, (rosa centifolia). They both bloom for about 6 weeks each spring in the environs of Southern France.


New York Botanical Garden- Bearded Iris and Provence Rose

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has graciously lent their work of the roses from a bequest by Pamela Harriman, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has done the same with their irises from this period. This is the first time since Van Gogh‘s death in 1890 that these four pictures have been reunited. Enabled by the new scientific research facilities now available at the Met, the loans will be returned with extensive conservation reports which will document their aging over time.  The pigments appear to have faded on all four canvases due to light exposure which affected the complimentary pairs of colors- yellow and purple and pink and green.   Van Gogh was a student of color theory and carefully matched his palette to reflect these pairs on the color wheel.

Art historians have poured over Vincent’s letters to his family and reconstructed a trajectory of his life and work from his early childhood in Zunder, Netherlands to his death in Auvers sur Oise, France at the tender age of 37 years. He was able in this brief life to paint over 2100 hundred works of art in oil and watercolor.   Vincent and his brother Theo were raised in a strict household by parents who were devoted members of the clergy of the Dutch Reform Church. They allowed Vincent to take art classes, and both boys worked for art dealers in London and Paris.  The flood of Japanese prints and wood cuts they saw in the shops obviously affected the paintings of Vincent, as many of his works use color in flat depictions of still life- an oriental tradition for sure.

These four pictures follow his famous series of blossoming spring trees and the sunflowers.  The irises and roses seem to capture his happy days in Provence where he had the time and the privacy to embrace the best of spring time. While these works have faded from their original vibrancy, perhaps that is a metaphor for the fleeting wonder of flowers that are here in their glory for a brief moment then pass until the next season from our view.

Visitors to the Met can enjoy this small and delightful show which displays some of the best work of Van Gogh created just before the end of his life in 1890.  Like a vulnerable iris or rose, he was lost in the spring time of his journey from a tragic suicide at the age of 37.

Irises, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Irises, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Roses, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Roses, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lehman Pavilion
Van Gogh: Irises and Roses
May 12 to August 16, 2015

Sharon Lorenzo