This painting of Irises was one of the first Van Gogh made while he was at the asylum at Saint Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the last year before his death in 1890. It was painted before his first attack at the asylum. This painting doesn’t yet show the high tension which is seen in his later works. Vincent called the painting “The lightning conductor for my illness” because he felt that he could keep himself from going insane by continuing to paint.
The painting was influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, like many of Van Goghs’ works and those by other artists of the time. The similarities occur with strong outlines, unusual angles, including close-up views, and also flattish local color (not modeled according to the fall of light). He considered this painting a study, which is probably why there are no known drawings for it, although Theo, Van Gogh’s brother, thought better of it and quickly submitted it to the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in September 1889, together with Starry Night over the Rhone. He wrote to Vincent about the exhibition: “It strikes the eye from afar. The Irises are a beautiful study full of air and life.”