a woman looks at Van Gogh’s unframed Irises painting through a stereo-microscope

For more than 30 years, a wild patch of vibrant blue flowers and undulating greenery has been a landmark of the Getty Museum’s collection, drawing crowds from all over the world who flock to gaze on the distinctive, curling lines and thick impasto of Irises by Vincent Van Gogh. Even while Getty has been closed to the public due to COVID, this painting ranked as the most-searched-for object in the Museum’s online collection.

Because it is so widely beloved, Irises is always on view. It does not travel to other museums and almost never comes off the wall of the 19th-century gallery in the Museum’s West Pavilion. If the Getty Museum is open, you can expect to see Van Gogh’s Irises.  But the unprecedented closure allowed Irises to be moved into the Getty’s laboratory and conservation studio for an in-depth examination. Since this wasn’t planned, the first challenge was to create a work plan that could be carried out within the restrictions and safety protocols in place to keep the staff safe from COVID-19.

“We developed a plan to examine the painting in many different lights which will add to our understanding of the artist’s studio practice and we hope that the results of this research will enhance the appreciation for the painting’s undisputed beauty,” said Devi Ormond, associate conservator of paintings at the Museum, who came to the Getty from the Van Gogh Museum more than nine years ago and has always wanted to thoroughly study the painting. “A ray of sunshine, for me, during these dark times has been having Irises in the conservation studio.”

Some of the goals of the study are to gain a better understanding of what pigments van Gogh used, and whether or not they have changed or degraded over time. It might also be possible to learn more about how he planned out the composition, the different types of plants depicted in the painting, and how they relate to the garden at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, which the artist had entered just a week before making Irises.

Irises was painted in 1889, during Van Gogh’s stay at a mental health hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. There, in the last year before his death, he created almost 130 paintings. He painted Irises from nature in the asylum’s garden. Throughout his career, Van Gogh was known to be influenced by Japanese art, especially woodblocks, which he had collected prior to his time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The cropped composition of Irises, with broad areas of vivid color and monumental irises overflowing its borders, was probably influenced by the decorative patterning of Japanese woodblock.

Irises is the first painting in a significant period in Van Gogh’s oeuvre, and this technical analysis has the potential to reveal details about the artist’s process while at the hospital, especially when compared to other paintings from this time.

“The scientific techniques we use to study works of art require a fair amount of dedicated time,” said Catherine Patterson, associate scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute. ”The Museum closure, then, has offered us the unique opportunity to utilize our full arsenal of analytical tools to gain a clearer picture of Van Gogh’s materials and techniques, while not further impacting the visitor experience.”

Two women look at a magnified view of the painting on a laptop screen

Getty scientists and conservators started by examining the painting using a variety of non-invasive imaging techniques. Stereo-microscopy gave a highly magnified view of the surface of the painting, allowing the complex mixture of pigments in each stroke to be visualized. Infrared reflectography and x-radiography provided a way of looking through the layers of the painting, revealing preparatory layers or changes. Macro x-ray fluorescence scanning allowed the chemical elements in the painting to be identified and visualized, from which the pigments could be inferred.

Once the collection of physical data has concluded and Irises is hung back on the wall, Getty conservators and conservation scientists will continue this study, scrutinizing the data and comparing it to information from Getty and other museums about Van Gogh’s other work.

“This project also perfectly encapsulates the intersection of art and science, something that doesn’t come to mind when many people first think of a museum,” said Michelle Tenggara, a Post-Baccalaureate Intern in paintings conservation, who has also had the extraordinary opportunity to get up-close and personal with Van Gogh. “Looking at this painting under the microscope is such an intimate way to study Van Gogh’s painting process – it’s mesmerizing!”