Beverly Darling writes: "I have a favorite Van Gogh painting, Irises (F 608, JH 1691). A friend mentioned that he'd seen a PBS piece on Van Gogh a few years back. One of the interesting items in the piece was the story of the meaning of the one white iris. He couldn't remember the reason, but said it was fascinating. Just curious . . . it's my favorite piece of art. If you should ever come across the story, I'd be interested."
This canvas was made in the first days of May 1889, a little after Van Gogh's admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Sanatorium in Saint-Rémy de Provence. The motive of the painting was taken of Hospital garden.
It represents two groups of flowers, one in violet colour and the other in red. The irises touch each other except the lonely white one that is clearly separated from the others, and it is situated on the border between both groups of flowers.
In the painting appear the three basic colours, red, blue and yellow. Theoretically the mixture of these colours would give white.
There's an hypothetic diagonal line that, passing through the white iris separates both groups of flowers. When one looks beneath this line, to the irises or their leaves, the sight jumps from one point to another in a certain nervous movement. When on looks to the red flowers the sight rests and remains quiet.
In my little library I have not found any explanation to the presence of the white iris, so it is possible that the reference you have had could have been a story that uses to accompany to all mythical people. Van Gogh can't escape to this habit.
If you let me do it, I can invent a story or a parable about the white iris. It could be like this:
The irises represent the world of the mentally ill people who are in the hospital. Van Gogh is a member of that community, but he is different, he looks like a madman but he is not mad like the others, he simply suffers of epilepsy, at least that was the doctor's diagnosis. He went to Hospital by his own will, as a voluntary patient, and he will leave it by his own will. He is different, he is the white iris, so he is something separated from the others.
The red flowers represent the world formed by "normal" or "sane" people, but as he doesn't consider himself enough healthy to be included in this group, he paints himself on the border of both worlds. He is present and absent at the same time on both sides. He is, like the white colour, a mixture of both worlds.
This is the short story but...is it really a mythical story?
Vincent van Gogh is a Dutch artist who knew perfectly the old Flemish painters. These artists used to introduce a Symbolism in its paintings, a meaning hidden, different of the real thing represented. Van Gogh used the symbolism in some of his paintings, for example in the empty chairs (JH 1635 and 1636), so, the question is: Is there any symbolism in the Irises? Which one?
Excuse my poor English. Best wishes,
Paula Grove's interpretation differs from José's. Please see her more pragmatic approach.
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