The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Van Gogh: Irises and Roses, contains only four paintings. But what masterpieces these works are. Though less famous than the artist's iconic paintings of sunflowers, these are every bit as worthy of attention.
In this small show, the museum takes from its own collection one painting of irises and one of roses and pairs them with their counterparts now held in other collections - the upright Irises from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the horizontal Roses from the National Gallery of Art. It is only when viewed together that the true greatness of these four works becomes visible and the artist's intentions made clear. As the museum's website notes:
"This exhibition will reunite the four paintings for the first time since the artist's death and is timed to coincide with the blooming of the flowers that captured his attention. It will open 125 years to the week that Van Gogh announced to his brother Theo, on May 11 and 13, 1890, that he was working on these 'large bouquets'..."
All four of the works shown date from the last year of the artist's life. During this period, Van Gogh left the asylum at Saint-Rémy and prepared to travel north to Auvers where he would spend his final months. Despite his virtual incarceration on the Saint-Rémy hospital grounds and the relapses that had temporarily prevented him from doing any work at all, this had actually been one of the most productive period of the painter's abbreviated career. Only the year before, in 1889, he had painted his masterpiece, The Starry Night.
Little of the profound psychological problems afflicting Van Gogh can be seen in the four paintings on display here. Instead,they are carefully composed still life images that convey a sense of serenity. By the time they were painted, Van Gogh had achieved complete mastery of his unusual style. The thick impasto strokes of paint have been confidently applied and every detail has been considered. The ability of the painter to capture the very essence of these flowers is almost uncanny. It is clear he has put into these works everything he had learned over the past five years since having completed his first major work, The Potato Eaters. This can be seen even in the two paintings of roses where the subtle pink shades Van Gogh deliberately chose have faded over the past 125 years and thus robbed the two works of some of their delicate detail.
Very few artists have ever possessed a fraction of Van Gogh's genius. It's an open question to what extent his madness contributed to the greatness of his work. Could someone less thoroughly dysfunctional have been able to view reality with the clarity this painter possessed? But in the end it really doesn't matter. What's indisputable is that Van Gogh's paintings represent the high point of nineteenth century European art. Anyone who is able should make the trip to the Met to see these late paintings. Despite their apparent simplicity, they are truly awe inspiring. If studied closely by the viewer, they offer a completely new way of perceiving reality and give a better understanding of the artist at the end of his life.