'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 like him here. 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. If we are to keep it up, I think his difficult times are over and he will be able to make it by himself' (Theo van Gogh, quoted in J. Hulsker, Vincent and Theo van Gogh: A Dual Biography, trans. J.M. Miller, Ann Arbor, 1990, p. 232).
So wrote Theo van Gogh to his mother in the summer of 1886, describing his brother Vincent's progress on his arrival in the French capital. Painted that summer, Still Life: Vase with Gladioli and Lilacs is one of the group of flower paintings that Theo here describes and in which Vincent would develop the love of colour that would from now on mark his greatest paintings. In this work, the bold use of the blocks of pure and untrammelled oils that make up the plants and their petals form an ornate and intense tapestry that makes the painting pulse with life, revealing the true dawn of Vincent's celebrated colourism.
This was a huge contrast to the greys that had dominated so many of Vincent's recent paintings in Holland. He now discovered a wider palette, exploring the possibilities of a newly invigorated range of colours and, importantly, of the juxtaposition of those colours. Vincent had initially come to Paris believing that he needed to improve his draughtsmanship, and with that in mind surprised his brother with his arrival in March 1886 (Theo had wanted him to help his family at home first, giving him time to move into another flat). There, Vincent enrolled in classes at Cormon's, where he studied diligently for some time. However, his exposure to life in Paris brought about many changes and introduced new ideas and influences to him. This was his fourth visit to the city, where he would remain on and off for two years, but he had not been there for almost a decade. He embraced the new place, the new language and the new opportunities to view the vast amount and variety of art with gusto and relish. Importantly, he also had space, and material comfort, and despite occasional tensions between the brothers, a great deal of the pressure was removed, not least because Theo could witness first time the advances that his brother was making, and perhaps also because he was now, through Vincent, being introduced to a wide circle of the most daring artists active in Paris at the time.
Amongst the works Vincent saw in Paris at first-hand, which must have been a revelation to him, were those of the Impressionists. By 1886, though, the Impressionist movement had changed and was no longer the school of Monet and Sisley, but instead was dominated by the Neo- and Post-Impressionists. From these, Vincent gleaned a combination of ideas about colour and expression in art. The brushstrokes in Still Life: Vase with Gladioli and Lilacs hint at the influence of Seurat and other artists exploring the potential of Pointillism, while the pure sense of expression appears to align him more with the Post-Impressionists and can be seen even to prefigure his famous friendship with Gauguin, so imminent now.
In this context, Vincent's interest in draughtsmanship, or at least his conviction in its centrality, waned quickly, and he left Cormon's to focus, in his own time and his own way, on the potential of colour. In a letter written to his friend, the English painter Horace M. Livens (whom he called 'Levens'), Van Gogh wrote-- in English, albeit with a couple of small spelling mistakes-- about his departure from Cormon's and his subsequent experiments:
'I have made a series of color studies in painting, simply flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and myosotys, white and rose roses, yellow chresanthemums-- seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking les tons rompus et neuters to harmonise 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' (Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, Vol. III, letter 459a, p. 515).
One of the greatest influences on Vincent during this time was the painter Monticelli. Theo had only recently purchased a still life of flowers by this Southern French artist (it is now in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), and it appears to have influenced his brother deeply, for in Still Life: Vase with Gladioli and Lilacs we see a shared interest in glistening, ardent colour. However, while Monticelli was bold enough to apply the paint directly with his palette knife in some instances, Vincent has preferred to create an intricate interplay of wide brushstrokes, swirling in some of the blossoms while creating an almost basketwork appearance in some of the flatter areas. Monticelli in fact died that very summer, on the 29 June, and one wonders if this did not in itself influence Vincent.
However, he was certainly on his own path, influenced by the potential of the 'Impressionists', but instead creating his own distinct colourism. Continuing his letter to Livens, he explained that through his experiments, 'What is to be gained is progress and what the deuce that is, it is to be found here. I dare say as certain anyone who has a solid position elsewhere let him stay where he is. But for adventurers as myself, I think they lose nothing in risking more. Especially as in my case I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate, and feeling nowhere so much myself a stranger as in my family and country' (Van Gogh, Letter 459a). Still Life: Vase with Gladioli and Lilacs dates from the very moment of development, recognition and maturity for Vincent, the moment at which this now legendary adventure truly began.