Irises have always been unique flowers with a profound meaning and an intriguing history.

Artists have found inspiration in these expressive flowers for centuries, and among the most famous depictions of irises is one of the most beloved paintings in the Getty Museum’s collection: Van Gogh’s Irises.

The Dutch painter associated these flowers with Provence, a region in southern France where they grow in abundance, and Japan, a country Van Gogh never visited but whose prints of irises he admired.

Van Gogh was fascinated by complementary contrast: the idea that a color looks brighter and more vivid if paired with its opposite on the color wheel. As paintings curator Scott Allan writes, “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?”

A painting of a close view of a bed of irises. Large blue irises are in the foreground. One white iris stands out on the left.

Irises, 1889, Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 37 1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum

The word “iris” comes from the ancient Greek for rainbow. It’s the name of the swift-footed messenger of the Olympian gods. In Greek vase paintings, Iris is usually depicted with wings to denote her sudden appearance from the heavens. She has much in common with Hermes, and, like him, is sometimes shown with a herald’s rod (kerykeion). Her role as a messenger makes the iris flower a symbol of eloquence as well.

“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,” says David Saunders, Getty’s associate curator of antiquities.

A photograph of the top half of an amphora. A female figure with wings is painted under the neck.

Black-Figure Neck Amphora (side B) (detail), about 530–520 B.C., Attributed to the Class of Neck Amphorae with Shoulder Pictures. Terracotta, 14 5/8 × 9 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum

The iris is also a muse to photographers. In 1896, the Japanese artist Ogawa Kazumasa published the book Some Japanese Flowers which features 38 collotypes—a printing technique that has the ability to reproduce the fine details of a photograph—depicting different flowers native to Japan, including Japanese irises. “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,” writes Megan Catalano, curatorial assistant for photographs.

Collotype of an iris has purple petals, green stems, and a brown background.

Iris Kæmpferi, 1896, Ogawa Kazumasa. Hand-colored collotype, 11 × 8 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum

Collotype of an iris has white petals, dark green stems, and a gray background.

Iris Kæmpferi, 1896, Ogawa Kazumasa. Hand-colored collotype, 11 × 8 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum

But first and foremost, the iris exists beyond artworks, outside in nature. There are 1,750 species and countless varieties of these legendary flowers. They can be found in Getty’s Central Garden especially in the spring. So, pay close attention to the irises, as artists have for centuries.

You can explore more depictions of irises in art and in nature in the new Google Arts & Culture exhibition, Irises at the Getty.