Irises at the Getty

Named after the mythical Greek goddess of the rainbow, the colorful iris is grown worldwide and has captured the eye of artists for many centuries.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Though the flower's most popular depiction at the Getty Museum is in a painting by Van Gogh, irises—of which there are 1,750 species and countless varieties—can be seen across all of our collecting areas, and even pop up in our own gardens. Here we unearth the history and meaning of these dramatic and expressive plants with artworks from our galleries and the flowers found in nature.

Irises (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Irises in Painting

Tough plants that could survive with minimal tending in a hot, arid climate, the tall bearded irises depicted here were emblematic of Provence for Van Gogh. 

The region had been the focus of his artistic ambitions since his departure from Paris in 1888, and it was only in Provence—of all the places the restless artist lived—that he would paint irises. The thriving flowers in this painting are very much rooted in their soil.

葛飾北斎画 燕子花|Grasshopper and Iris, Katsushika Hokusai, late 1820s, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Show lessRead more

Van Gogh also associated irises with Japan, where the native species were highly esteemed and figured prominently in art. Like many European artists of his generation, Van Gogh immersed himself in Japanese art; more strangely, he conflated Japan and Provence in his imagination. To him they were both exotic places that beckoned with a stronger sun, clearer skies, and more vivid colors.

Irises Irises (1889) by Vincent van GoghThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Vivid color was certainly one of Van Gogh’s main concerns in his flower paintings. 

He was schooled in modern color theory and became obsessed with complementary contrast—the idea that a color is intensified when paired with the color from the opposite side of the color wheel. 

Irises is all about the play of complementaries: the pale green leaves against the reddish earth, and the blue-violet irises against the orange and yellow flowers in the background.

Amidst these strong colors, a lone white iris stands out. Is its purpose mainly pictorial, to provide a moment of visual respite and contrast?

Or is it symbolic of something deeper, a figure perhaps for Van Gogh’s own loneliness, isolation, and spiritual suffering, as many people like to think?

For his part, Van Gogh was content to refer to Irises as a “study from nature” and leave its interpretation open-ended.

Iris in Antiquity

“…dew-wet Iris flew down through the sky, on saffron wings, trailing a thousand shifting colors across the sun.” (Vergil, Aeneid 4, 700-701)

Black-Figure Neck Amphora (Side B) (about 530–520 B.C.) by Class of Neck Amphorae with Shoulder PicturesThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The ancient Greek word for a rainbow was iris, and the goddess of the same name was renowned for her sudden appearances. 

Centuries before Vergil’s description, Homer called her “Iris of the Whirlwind Feet,” and we see her running at speed on the shoulder of this amphora (storage jar).

Given her ability to cover great distances in little time, Iris often served as a messenger, both among the Olympian gods and between divinities and mortals. 

In this capacity, she has much in common with the Greek god Hermes, and like him is sometimes depicted with a kerykeion (herald’s staff).

Attic Red-Figure Cup Fragment (comprised of 6 Joined Fragments) (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

On this fragment of an Athenian drinking cup, Iris strides past a column and into a building. Only the arm, shoulder, and head of the goddess are preserved, but she is recognizable by the kerykeion that she grasps in her hand, as well as one of her wings.

Attic Red-Figure Cup Fragment (comprised of 6 Joined Fragments) (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

There’s not enough here to convey exactly what’s happening, but the young boy watching from behind the column suggests that the goddess is intervening in mortal affairs, perhaps bringing a message from Zeus.

Attic Black-Figure Column Krater (Side B)The J. Paul Getty Museum

While the kerykeion is a good clue for recognizing Iris, it’s by no means foolproof, as it’s sometimes carried by other winged goddesses.

Furthermore, many vases, such as the amphora seen earlier, or this column-krater (mixing vessel), show a winged goddess without any distinctive attributes, leaving it unclear whether Iris is depicted, or perhaps Nike, the goddess of victory.

Attic Black-Figure Eye Cup (Interior)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Another puzzling representation occurs on the interior of this drinking cup. The figure is clearly capable of swift movement. Not only does she have wings, but winged boots too. 

Attic Black-Figure Eye Cup (3/4 side A)The J. Paul Getty Museum

With a battle between Giants and the Gods depicted on the exterior of the cup, we might imagine Iris is here communicating news of the conflict.

Attic Black-Figure Eye Cup (Interior)The J. Paul Getty Museum

But there’s a very similar figure on a cup in Berlin, and there she is labelled not Iris, but Eris, the personification of strife. 

Attic Black-Figure Eye Cup (Interior)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Perhaps the difficulty we encounter in pinning down Iris’s identity goes to the heart of her significance for the ancient Greeks: she is fleeting and elusive, just like the rainbow with which she shares her name.

The Last Judgment (about 1450–1455) by Master of Guillebert de MetsThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Irises in Manuscripts

Exuberant blooms wend their way around the border of this page from a 15th-century Flemish manuscript, a prayer book intended to guide personal devotions.

Christ sits on a rainbow at the center of this image depicting the medieval Christian belief that at the end of time, Christ would return in glory and judge all people, admitting them to heaven or condemning them to hell for eternity.

Angels trumpet and the resurrected climb from their graves, their prayers becoming material in the form of scrolling banners that enter the margins and curl around the irises. 

The Last Judgment (about 1450–1455) by Master of Guillebert de MetsThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The drama of the event plays out in the borders among the flowers: the souls of the saved appear sheltered in a tent on the left side of the page . . .

The Last Judgment (about 1450–1455) by Master of Guillebert de MetsThe J. Paul Getty Museum

. . . while the souls of the damned are engulfed by flames in an entrance to hell that emerges from the center of one of the oversized blooms in the opposite margin.  

David in Prayer (about 1450–1455) by Master of Guillebert de MetsThe J. Paul Getty Museum

David, the legendary king described in the Hebrew Bible, appears on the facing page, kneeling in prayer toward the image of Christ.

The Last Judgment and David in Prayer (about 1450–1455) by Master of Guillebert de MetsThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The striking, nearly life-size flowers that dominate the borders, along with the sinuously scrolling banners of prayer, connect the two images and create a visually harmonious and balanced book opening. 

This medieval prayer book offers early evidence of an interest in carefully studied natural specimens, the seeds of the tradition of still-life painting that would become a staple of Northern European art in later centuries.

The rhythmic vibrancy of the green leaves and purple-blue blooms almost seem to anticipate Van Gogh—as it happens, this book was made in Ghent, the Netherlands, only about an hour’s drive from Zundert, Van Gogh’s birthplace.

The Last Judgment, Master of Guillebert de Mets, about 1450–1455, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
David in Prayer, Master of Guillebert de Mets, about 1450–1455, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more

Flowers and Beetles (1582) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Irises in Drawings

This drawing features two different types of irises . . . 

. . . a grass-leaved iris in the center, recognizable by its long, narrow leaves . . . 

. . . and a bearded iris to the far right named after the caterpillar-like “beards” on its downward-curving petals.

They are shown along with a peony at the left, an amaryllis, and two beetles. The insects are depicted in an illusionistic manner, as if they were crawling through the surface, casting their shadows onto it.

Flowers and Beetles (1582) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The drawing was executed on a large piece of parchment, made of animal skin. Preparing the skin would have been a time-consuming and arduous task. First the pelt was soaked in a lime solution to loosen the hair, which then was removed. 

Flowers and Beetles (1582) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

While still wet, the pelt was placed on a stretcher and scraped repeatedly until it became thin and even. After the parchment was prepared, the artist rendered the forms in black chalk then colored them with opaque watercolor.

Flowers and Beetles (1582) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

If you look carefully, you can still see the black chalk underdrawing in some areas such as the stem of the peony. 

Flowers and Beetles (1582) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This drawing occupies a gray area between a scientific illustration and still life. Following the conventions of early modern botanical and zoological images, the artist represented the specimens in detail on a blank background.

But he chose not to show the life cycles and developments of the plants and animals, common in scientific studies of the time . . . 

. . . furthermore, he depicted irregularities and flaws of the individual specimens, such as the damaged leaves of the amaryllis.  

Flowers and Beetles (1582) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Hans Hoffmann, an artist active primarily in Nuremberg and Munich (in modern-day Germany), and Prague (the Czech Republic), signed this sheet in the center with his decorative HH monogram along with the date “1582.”

A Hare in the Forest (about 1585) by Hans HoffmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

He is best known for his copies and variations after the work of Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer. Hoffmann’s oil painting Hare in the Forest, also part of the Getty Museum’s collection, is based on Dürer’s famous watercolor of the same subject.

Iris Kæmpferi (1896) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Irises in Photographs

This view of a vividly colored iris is by Japanese artist Ogawa Kazumasa.

Born in 1860 in Musashi Province (present-day Tokyo, and parts of Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures), Ogawa became interested in photography as a teenager after seeing photographs illustrating a school book. He opened his first studio in 1877 at the young age of 17 and saw moderate commercial success selling portraits for 75¢ apiece.

Girl Beating a Tsugumi (1897) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In 1882, he sailed to the United States on the crew of the USS Swatara, and spent 18 months in Boston and Philadelphia learning commercial photography and printing techniques.

Misu-no-uchi (1896) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In 1889, four years after returning to Japan, he opened the Ogawa Shashin Seihanjō, the first company in Japan that specialized in collotype printing. Over the course of his career, Ogawa would become known for the high quality of his color collotypes.

Iris Kæmpferi (1896) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Collotype printing is a technique that has the ability to preserve the fine details of a photograph. 

The process uses a flat surface, or plate, that is coated with a layer of light-sensitive gelatin and exposed to light through a photographic negative, causing the gelatin to harden in the areas where it is exposed. 

The plate is then washed to remove the light-sensitive salts from the gelatin, which causes tiny cracks in the hardened surface that trap and hold ink.

The cracks are more numerous in areas with more hardened gelatin, which allows for higher concentrations of ink to create darker tones. The plate is then rolled with thick, oil-based ink, and pressed onto paper. 

Under magnification we can see the pattern, in black, made by the tiny cracks in the hardened gelatin.

Ogawa Kazumasa Iris Kæmpferi at 12.5x magnification, Ogawa Kazumasa, 2021-04-01, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Ogawa Kazumasa Iris Kæmpferi at 115x magnification, Ogawa Kazumasa, 2021-04-01, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more
Iris Kæmpferi, Ogawa Kazumasa, 1896, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Iris Kæmpferi, Ogawa Kazumasa, 1896, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more

In true color collotypes, multiple plates are made, separating out a different color on each plate. The paper is passed over each plate until the print is complete. Ogawa Kazumasa became known for creating multi-plate color collotypes that could faithfully reproduce vivid colors in a wider range than the limited three- or six-plate color collotypes of the day. He typically used anywhere from eight to twelve different colors in a single print.

Some Japanese Flowers. By K. Ogawa, F.R.P.S., Tokyo. (1896) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Among the many titles Ogawa’s Shashin Seihanjō printed was Some Japanese Flowers. Published in 1896, the book features 38 collotype prints made using multiple-pass collotype plates depicting different flowers native to Japan. 

Iris Kæmpferi (1896) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

These images of I. kaempferi, known today as the I. ensata, or Japanese iris, are two of the color collotype prints included in Some Japanese Flowers

The irises, like most of the flowers in Ogawa’s book, are presented alone in front of a plain background so as not to distract from the flowers themselves. 

Iris Kæmpferi (1896) by Ogawa KazumasaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Even the color Ogawa selected for the background of each is neutral and muted, presumably with the intention of showing off not only the fine details and colors of the flower, but his skill in reproducing them.

Irises in Nature

Irises also exist beyond the walls of our galleries. The Central Garden at the Getty Center is home to a few varietals of the flower in the spring months, which can be identified not only by their recognizable vibrant petals, but also by their fool-proof, yet complex flower formula, which helps simply and concisely identify flowers.

Dutch Iris ‘Montecito’ in the Getty's Central Garden, Photographed by Jackie Flor, 2021, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Dutch Iris ‘Mystic Beauty’ in the Getty's Central Garden, Photograph by Jackie Flor, 2021, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Dutch Iris ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in the Getty's Central Garden, Photograph by Jackie Flor, 2021, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more

The Iridaceae family formula shows that the features of each flower divides into 3 parts:

• sepals (shown as Ca for calyx, the scientific name for the often leafy base to the flower head)

• petals (Co for corolla, the name for the collective group of petals found on a flower)

• anthers (A for anthers/stamens, which holds the pollen; male) and gynoecium (G for ovaries and the structures that house them; female.)

Iris Flower Formula Diagram (2021) by Design by Tracy CoradoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This formula applies to all of the flowers in this family. Like reading text, we can know the sepals, petals and anthers progress up the stem based on their order in the formula’s sequence.

Moving up the iris's stem, sepals come first, followed by the petals and anthers.

With the ‘G’ under the formula’s line we know the ovaries are positioned below the other structures on the stem of each iris flower.

In this case, iris flowers have a showy, petal-like extension of the ovaries called a “petaloid style.”

Van Gogh painted his irises in a simple walled garden on the grounds of the asylum in St. Rémy. The irises that feature seasonally in the Getty’s Central Garden are part of a complex orchestration of plantings—including trees, shrubs, and flowers—along with a meandering stream, rocks, and a cascade.

View of inner bowl and maze of Getty's Central Garden (2020) by Photo: Tahnee CracchiolaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

All these elements culminate in a large pond, where the water circulates through a maze of azaleas. The colors, textures, smells, and sounds combine to create a multisensory experience for the visitor walking through the garden. 

Getty Center Central Garden Design Plans (1994) by Robert IrwinThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The harmonious effect of the Central Garden results from its status as a work of art; indeed, it is part of the Getty Museum’s collection.

The Garden was conceived and designed by Robert Irwin, a celebrated artist and one of the leading members of California’s Light and Space movement developed in the 1970s.

The Museum’s  Central Garden is an example of what Irwin calls  “conditional art,” which, in the artist’s words, aims to change “the whole visual structure of how you look at the world.” 

Aerial View of the Getty Central Garden (2019) by Photo: Christopher SprinkleThe J. Paul Getty Museum

When the garden is in full bloom, Irwin’s horticultural palette creates a stunning panorama. The orientation of the site along a north-south axis enhances the visual payoff, as the blossoms naturally face the sun to the south.

View of the Central Garden, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more

Once visitors descend into the lower garden bowl, their view of Los Angeles is blocked by a raised berm. Attention is redirected back up the slope, where one gets a spectacular view of the Research Institute, on the left, and the Museum, on the right, framing the garden.

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

Images of the Central Garden reproduced courtesy of Robert Irwin. Garden design © Robert Irwin.

To learn more about Van Gogh's painting, read Jennifer Helvey’s book Irises: Vincent Van Gogh in the Garden (Getty Publications, 2009).

To cite these texts, please use: “Irises at the Getty” published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps