Poet Charles Hood has of late been immersing himself in the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, and he made a connection that I found quite intriguing between Van Gogh’s Irises painting at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Shakespeare: might Van Gogh have painted his irises in dizzy retreat from reading one of the bard’s plays, perhaps King Lear? Hood emailed his speculation to my wife and I, and I asked him if I could post it on my blog, which he was agreeable to. Here’s what he wrote:
I found a great quote by van Gogh in the new ($500) edition of his letters. He is in the asylum at Saint Remy and writes to his sister that: “I am quite absorbed in reading the Shakespeare that Theo sent me here, where at last I’ll have the calm necessary to do a little more difficult reading. I’ve first taken the kings series, of which I’ve already read Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and part of Henry VI — as these dramas were the most unfamiliar to me. Have you ever read King Lear? But anyway, I think I shan’t urge you too much to read such dramatic books when I myself, returning from this reading, am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself.”
(As a side note, English was his third language, after Dutch and French, and he also was reading Dickens, Balzac, and Whitman.)
What is of interest for those of us like Santi who take students to museums is that he wrote this just when he was composing the Irises that is in the Getty. Could that painting be a response to reading Shakespeare too intensely? It also of course incorporates compositional elements from Japanese prints, which he collected via Theo, and responds to the fact that when initially placed in Saint Remy, he did not have permission to leave the grounds. But its surprisingly tight composition, with its implied intensity of local gaze, could be explained by his close reading of literary texts, too. He is part Blake, part New Critic.