Art UK has updated its cookies policy. By using this website you are agreeing to the use of cookies. To find out more read our updated Use of Cookies policy and our updated Privacy policy.

One of the most beautiful and elegant of spring flowers, the iris always attracts the eye with its spear-like blooms and riotous variety of colours.

Grown in the northern hemisphere, the genus Iris includes up to 300 different species and has engendered a mythology of its own. The symbolic meaning of the Iris and its sheer visual impact has inspired artists across the centuries.

Even John Bratby (1928–1992), the founder of Kitchen Sink Realism, better known for unforgiving portraits and depictions of toilets, must have succumbed to the allure of the iris in the 1960s, when his painting took a lighter turn. Here his signature bright colours are used to brilliant effect, contrasting the purple irises with yellow and red-striped tulips.

Irises and Tulips

Irises and Tulips c.1967

John Randall Bratby (1928–1992)

Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

But how did the iris get its name? In Greek mythology, the goddess Iris serves Zeus and Hera as a divine messenger. She personifies the rainbow which connects the heavens with the earth, linking gods and mortals, and many believe the flower, with its wide variety of hues, is named after her.

Iris

Iris c.1800

Guy Head (1760–1800)

National Galleries of Scotland

The iris carried multiple meanings across cultures: for example, in ancient Egypt it represented power and victory and in the medieval period it signified a charm to ward off evil.

Portinari Altarpiece

Portinari Altarpiece

c.1475–1476, oil on wood by Hugo van der Goes (c.1430/1440–1482)

The iris features in medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary, notably the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes (c.1440–1482) and the earlier version of Leonardo da Vinci's (1452–1519) Madonna of the Rocks, in the Louvre, where the botanically accurate irises are seen bottom left. In the later version, found in The National Gallery in London, the iris has been replaced by the Star of Bethlehem, a member of the lily family and symbol of the Virgin's purity.

Virgin of the Rocks

Virgin of the Rocks

c.1483–1486, oil on panel by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)

Scholars suggest a variety of interpretations for the iris when seen with the Virgin. The double tripartite petals evoke the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while its sword-like leaves foretell the sorrows that Mary will have to bear because of her Son.

In early Netherlandish paintings, the iris sometimes takes the place of the traditional white lily as the Virgin's floral attribute. Sometimes the two appear side by side, as in this work by Gerard David (c.1460–1523).

The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor

The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor probably 1510

Gerard David (c.1460–1523)

The National Gallery, London

The Virgin sits enthroned in an enclosed garden, a metaphor for her virginity, with a lily to her left reminding us of her purity. The rose below with its thorns, and the iris to her right, symbolise the suffering yet to come. In Roman Catholic iconography the swords used to depict the Seven Sorrows of Mary are sometimes replaced with an iris.

In Albrecht Dürer's painting nicknamed 'The Madonna with the Iris', most probably worked on by his studio, purple irises and roses similarly flank Mary.

The Virgin and Child ('The Madonna with the Iris')

The Virgin and Child ('The Madonna with the Iris') about 1500-10

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) (studio of)

The National Gallery, London

Dürer (1471–1528) was well known for his detailed watercolour studies of the natural world and these were no doubt made available to his students.

Rigorous attention to botanical detail features in seventeenth-century Dutch flower painting, where individual flowers are depicted accurately but arranged artificially so that every flower is fully visible in a way that would be physically impossible to achieve.

Spring Flowers in a Delft Vase: Iris, Roses and a Tulip

Spring Flowers in a Delft Vase: Iris, Roses and a Tulip

Anthony Claesz. the younger (1616–1652) (attributed to)

National Trust for Scotland, Gladstone's Land

This typical work shows a pair of bearded irises with flamboyant inner and outer petals known as ruffs and falls, a challenge for the artist. The yellow 'beards' are just distinguishable on the pale pink and yellow flower.

Perhaps the most famous of all paintings of the iris is Vincent van Gogh's Irises, one of the artist's most renowned works. When it auctioned for $53.9 million in 1987, it became the most expensive painting ever sold.

Irises

Irises

1889, oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

Van Gogh created the work in the last year of his life, within a week of entering the asylum of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in May 1889. Working in the garden, he used exuberant brushstrokes suggesting a joy in the subject matter despite his mental torment. His brother Theo submitted the painting to the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in September 1889, calling it 'a beautiful study full of air and life'.

The irises were originally violet, achieved by mixing red and blue pigments, a deliberate colour contrast to the yellow flowers behind, but the red has faded, and the flowers now appear to be blue, with a single white iris lifting its head above the others. It's hard not to see this as symbolic of Van Gogh's own sense of isolation from the world. A year later he painted Irises in a Vase, with the broken stem a deeply poignant harbinger of his imminent death that year.

Irises

Irises

1890, oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

Van Gogh was profoundly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, and as Japan opened up to the West in the late nineteenth century, there was enormous public demand for them. In Japan, the blue iris was traditionally a symbol of bravery, and later a symbol of success, and very popular as subject matter for artists.

Katsushika Hokusai frequently included the iris in his picture books where he discussed in detail how they should be coloured. He believed that it was only his in his seventies that he had come to fully understand the depiction of nature. This static representation of a kingfisher diving between the sharp-edged leaves of an iris was to influence subsequent artists.

Kingfisher, fringed iris, dianthus

Kingfisher, fringed iris, dianthus

c.1834, woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)

One of those influenced by Hokusai was Walter Crane (1845–1915), one of the foremost designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement and a highly successful illustrator and writer of children's books. Crane employed the iris as a motif in designs for interiors, in his distinctive sharp-edged work. In this wallpaper design he clearly pays homage to Hokusai but recolours the iris and stylises it to resemble a fleur-de-lis, a motif said to derive from the shape of the iris.

Iris and kingfisher

Iris and kingfisher

1877, colour woodblock print on paper by Walter Crane (1845–1915)

The fleur-de-lis stood as a symbol of the French monarchy before the French Revolution and is commonly used in heraldry.

The French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840–1926), although perhaps most closely associated with water lilies, ardently cultivated irises of many different species in his garden at Giverny and painted them with loose energetic brushstrokes en plein air. Like Van Gogh, he sets the vivid blues and violets against a warm yellow for the winding path.

Irises

Irises about 1914-17

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

The National Gallery, London

In the same period, the Victorian language of flowers imbued the iris with different meanings according to its colour. White irises symbolised purity, yellow irises passion, blue irises faith and hope, and purple irises royalty and wisdom. But above all the iris came to represent a message, which made it a gift for painters of the time.

John Dickson Batten (1860–1932), a painter of allegory and mythological scenes, and illustrator of fairy tales, places purple irises centre stage in Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast 1904

John Dickson Batten (1860–1932)

Birmingham Museums Trust

Maybe they allude to the royal status of the prince trapped in the beast's body? They certainly seem to alert the young woman that there is more than meets the eye to her captor.

The lone and dying yellow iris in Broken Vows highlights the passion once enjoyed by the lovelorn young woman now obliged to witness the rose of romance being handed by her faithless lover to another woman.

Broken Vows

Broken Vows 1856

Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898)

Tate

Meanwhile the yellowing ivy shows the loss of the love she believed to be evergreen. Victorian viewers would have been familiar with working out the signs and symbols in this style of painting.

Like Monet before him, Cedric Morris (1889–1982) was as passionate about plants as he was about painting.

Iris Seedlings

Iris Seedlings 1943

Cedric Lockwood Morris (1889–1982)

Tate

Together with his partner Arthur Lett-Haines he set up a painting school in Dedham, Suffolk, and later moved to Benton End, where Morris indulged his passion for irises. He grew about a thousand new seedlings each year and cultivated 90 new varieties, holding 'Iris Days' at which he would unveil his favourites among the many bearded irises he bred each year.

Mottled Iris

Mottled Iris

Cedric Lockwood Morris (1889–1982)

Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

In his work Morris combined his skills as an artist with his detailed understanding of botany, avoiding slavish copying of flowers and adopting what the Garden Museum termed 'an expressionist mode with echoes of surrealism and cubism'. In contrast to his delicate seedlings, here the irises take on a deeply exotic and almost sinister appearance, as if they might readily trap any passing insect.

Elizabeth Blackadder (1931–2021) freely admitted to being fascinated by irises, admiring their strong structure, the texture of the leaves and the way the light shines through the petals.

Irises, Brown and Yellow

Irises, Brown and Yellow late 20th C

Elizabeth V. Blackadder (1931–2021)

The Fleming Collection

Like Morris, she cultivated many varieties herself. In an article in Painters Online, she described the challenge of painting irises, recommending heavy paper with a smooth, hard surface, explaining that this allows for the paint to lie on top and helps the artist to achieve sharper lines and greater detail. She often preferred to set the irises against a plain white background because of their beautiful intricate shapes and the appeal of the spaces left between them.

Purple Irises

Purple Irises

Elizabeth V. Blackadder (1931–2021)

NHS Lothian (Edinburgh & Lothians Health Foundation)

The iris has a rare quality in its ability to inspire artists not only to strive to capture its elegant form, but in many cases to cultivate it and study its many beautiful iterations. Whether as a religious symbol, a coded message or simply an object of natural beauty, the iris seems certain to endure as a favourite subject in art.

Lucy Ellis, freelance writer