Transplanting Van Gogh’s Iris

Vincent van Gogh, Iris (1889), oil on thinned cardboard, mounted on canvas, 62.3 x 48.3 cm. NGC

Deep in the Gallery’s archives sits a hand-written note from Dutch art dealer Peter Eilers. He appears to have written it in the fall of 1953 while on board the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth en route to New York. Scrawled on ship’s stationery, and addressed to the Gallery’s then-director Harry Orr McCurry, Eilers dedicates most of his note to general pleasantries before ending with a short, yet tantalizing, afterthought: “P.S. I have with me a magnificent Van Gogh ‘Arles period’, which can be paid for in Dutch funds.” 

While we now know Van Gogh’s Iris was likely painted later in Saint-Rémy, following his celebrated period in Arles, that one sentence tacked onto the end of a scribble nearly 60 years ago led to one of the greatest — and smartest — acquisitions the Gallery has ever made. By the spring of 1955 the Gallery would have an iconic example of Van Gogh’s study of, and fascination with, nature. It was an up-close depiction of a single blooming iris in a grassy garden, completed when the artist was near the height of his powers. 

Of course it was not easy for Van Gogh’s Iris to travel from Southern France to the walls of the Gallery in Ottawa. The negotiations took nearly two years, with numerous stops and starts, and at times McCurry may have wondered if Canadians would ever come to enjoy the beauty of Iris for themselves.

Eilers represented the Amsterdam-based E.J. Van Wisselingh & Co., a key dealer for Van Gogh’s paintings that had several clients in Canada, including the Gallery. He had intimate ties to the North American market for European art through his father, P.C. Eilers, who had started travelling to Canada for Van Wisselingh in 1904. And, as his father had done, Eilers brought with him works of art he would exhibit in hotels and other venues in major Canadian cities hoping galleries or serious collectors would snap them up.

Van Wisselingh was offering Iris for $65,000 CDN. Eilers cleverly reminded McCurry the painting could be paid for with “blocked funds” — money the Dutch government owed Canada that was held on reserve in Holland for educational purposes. This fact would have sweetened the deal because it meant the Gallery would not have to raise such a considerable sum from its own resources. 

Following his first meeting with Eilers in Ottawa on 17 November 1953, McCurry appears to have been swiftly convinced that acquiring the painting was the right move for the Gallery. In a letter received 1 December 1953, Eilers reminds the director of his interest: “As you stated, this picture would form, with the two Van Goghs you already have from this period, a perfect set, most suitable to serve the educational purposes for which these funds are destined.”

Anabelle Kienle, associate curator of European and American Art, says that although the Gallery already had two great still lifes from his Paris period, the Iris would have been an exciting acquisition because it took the idea of the still life to an entirely new level. “Van Gogh singled out a bloom, which he depicts in all its glory using a dramatic format,” she says. “This work, deliberately cropped and without a horizon, shows the artist at his most radical and innovative.”

It appears that Eilers left the painting behind in New York during his November visit to Ottawa, presumably so it could be shown to interested American buyers, but he soon arranged for it to be shipped to the Gallery for McCurry’s consideration. In a letter of 14 December, McCurry confirmed that Iris had arrived safely: “I am enjoying the Van Gogh this minute,” he wrote, “as it is hanging for the time being in my office.” And while a deal seemed imminent, a complication emerged threatening to scuttle the whole transaction.

Inspection revealed that Iris had been painted on laminated paper or board — a support similar to modern cardboard — and later mounted on canvas. Beginning in the early 1800s, this support was popular among artists because it was compact, affordable and portable — characteristics favoured by those who, like Van Gogh, often painted outside. Van Gogh, however, likely used it because he had simply run out of canvas. McCurry and his board of trustees expressed concern that while Iris still looked “in brilliant condition,” they needed expert opinion as to whether that would be the case “100 years from now.” In a cable dated January 1954 McCurry shared these concerns with Eilers in short, unpunctuated, prose: “Some trustees favour purchase Iris but greatly regret paper support which will definitely affect lasting qualities of picture please air mail comments.”

The art dealer replied on 9 February, explaining that since “a flexible and breakable material was undesirable for such a valuable work,” the cardboard had been thinned and mounted on canvas. By way of reassurance, he enclosed testimony from two experts: Dr. Martin de Wild, whom Eilers described as “the most outstanding restorer in Holland,” and Dr. H. Gerson, of the State Office for Art Historical Documentation in The Hague. Both authorities agreed that the Iris would not wilt on its paper surface. By mid-March the issue appeared to have been resolved and a satisfied McCurry wrote Eilers explaining that because the Gallery was occupied with an European masters exhibition, Iris was still hanging in his office, but he would now “certainly have much pleasure in recommending the Van Gogh” to the board.

But just as one hurdle had been leaped, another arose. Previously the Gallery had been able to use blocked funds in Holland to finance art purchases from that country. But in August 1954 McCurry explained to Eilers by letter that the Department of Finance wanted to hold the remaining blocked funds for scholarships. The Gallery was stuck; it had to come up with the money on its own.

Correspondence between the dealer and the director over the ensuing months suggests that Eilers was growing increasingly anxious about the sale. He mentions other interested parties in the US in what appears to be an attempt to pressure McCurry. The director, for his part, was working furiously to organize the necessary funds. Ultimately he stretched the purchase over two fiscal years, and was able to negotiate the original price of $65,000 down to $62,500, but it would take until the end of March 1955 before the Iris was finally paid in full.

Cherished at the Gallery for almost 60 years now, Van Gogh’s Iris continues to further our understanding of the artist today.

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