Vincent VAN GOGH | Imperial Crown fritillaries in a copper vase [Fritillaires couronne impériale dans un vase de cuivre]

Vincent VAN GOGH
The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890

Imperial Crown fritillaries in a copper vase
[Fritillaires couronne impériale dans un vase de cuivre]
1887
oil on canvas
canvas 73.0 (h) x 60.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Count Isaac de Camondo 1911
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

From March 1886 to February 1888 van Gogh lived with his brother Theo in Paris. Therefore almost none of their usually voluminous correspondence exists for this time. This period in Paris was Vincent’s first encounter with Impressionism, and the resultant brightening of his palette can be seen, especially in the flower studies he painted. Theo wrote to their mother in July 1886:

He is mainly painting flowers—with the object to put a more lively colour into his next set of pictures. He is also more cheerful than in the past and people here like him. To give you proof: hardly a day passes that he is not asked to go to the studios of well-known painters, or they come to see him. He also has acquaintances who give him a bunch of flowers every week which may serve him as models.1

Both Monet and Gustave Caillebotte painted flowers, and Theo’s position as a dealer with Boussod, Valadon & Co. (successors to Goupil & Co.) may have allowed Vincent to see these works. It was, nonetheless, the Marseilles painter Adolphe Monticelli who influenced Vincent most, especially in his vigorous impasto and rich colours:

In 1886 van Gogh discovered some of Monticelli’s mature works in the Galerie Delarebeyrette, Paris. He began to imitate Monticelli’s flower-pieces, for example in Hollyhocks in a one-eared vase2
and later bought six paintings for his personal collection ... In 1890 van Gogh and his brother Theo funded the publication of the first book about Monticelli … Most of Monticelli’s experimental and stylistic innovations have been ascribed to van Gogh, although van Gogh readily acknowledged his indebtedness to the Marseilles painter.3

The spectacular blooms of the Imperial Crown or Kaiser’s Crown fritillary can be seen in European gardens in late April and May. Here they seem to substitute for the sun’s flames in front of a starry sky, the orange and gold petals whirling like a corona above the shining copper bowl. Striated green crowns are repeated in the abundant leaves and stems of the flowers, then dissolve into the neutral strokes of the brown table mat. Sparkling lights of tiny white spots glisten on the profoundly blue ground. Around September 1886 Vincent wrote in English to his acquaintance, the painter Horace M. Livens, explaining his strategy. He had no money to pay models, therefore:

I have made a series of colour studies in painting, simply flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and myosotys, white and rose roses, yellow chrysanthemums—seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking les tons rompus et neutres [worn-out and neutral tones] to harmonize brutal extremes. Trying to render intense colour and not a grey harmony … So as we said at the time: in colour seeking life the true drawing is modelling with colour.4

Christine Dixon

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Viewed 28 August 2009, www.webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/17/etc-fam-1886.htm?qp=health.dental.
  2. 1886, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich.
  3. Aaron Sheon, ‘Monticelli, Adolphe’, in Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 22, London: Macmillan 1996, pp. 29–30.
  4. Paris, around August–October 1886, letter 459a, viewed 28 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/553_V-T_459a.pdf.