The first few weeks of Picasso’s stay in Paris were spent in frantic artistic activity preparing for the show. The dynamic and varied life of the metropolis, with its busy boulevards, nightclubs, cafés and public gardens, offered him a rich source of inspiration and he executed scenes from everyday life, several floral still lifes (some of which are now in museum collections) and a number of portraits of the characters he came into contact with, including social outcasts. A companion-piece to the present composition—showing a lush bouquet of flowers in the same white vase—can be seen in a rare photograph of Picasso’s Paris studio taken in 1901. The exhibition at Vollard’s gallery opened on June 24, and was favorably reviewed by the critics: Félicien Fagus wrote in La Revue Blanche, "[Picasso] is the brilliant newcomer… like all pure painters, he adores colour…. Each influence is transitory… one sees that Picasso’s haste has not yet given him time to forge a personal style; his personality is in his haste, this youthful impetuous spontaneity. I understand he is not yet twenty, and covers as many as three canvases a day."
According to Pierre Daix and Georges Boudaille, of all floral still lifes that Picasso executed during this time the present oil is the only one depicting irises and is therefore certainly the canvas titled Iris that was exhibited in the Vollard show. Picasso's own assessment of the exhibition was that it had "some success. Almost all the papers have treated it favorably, which is something." The poet Max Jacob, whom Picasso would later feature in several paintings and drawings, confirmed that "as soon as he arrived in Paris, [Picasso] had an exhibition at Vollard's, which was a veritable success" (quoted in Picasso, Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 2009, p. 30). Following the critical success of the exhibition, Picasso would be recognized as a major force among an emerging new generation of artists in Paris.
Painted when he was nineteen years old, Iris jaunes reflects the myriad influences playing on Picasso's art during this period. Even in his paintings of traditional themes like still lifes and mothers with children, Picasso favored a palette and a technique that captured the energy and dazzle of this exciting chapter. Around this time Odilon Redon's floral compositions were exhibited at the Galerie Durand-Ruel and were wildly popular among the public. Picasso certainly saw these pictures, as well as those of the post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, on his rounds to the Parisian galleries, and the present work is a resonant example of this artistic distillation. While the contrasted palette of this oil evokes the fin-de-siècle Symbolism of artists as diverse as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch, the use of deep blue tones anticipates Picasso’s celebrated Blue Period.
In 1935 Iris jaunes was acquired by Captain Stanley William Sykes, a Cambridge graduate whose bequest of works by Degas, Seurat and Sisley now forms a major part of the Impressionist art collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. While it was not part of the bequest, this work was on a long-term loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum for over a quarter of a century. After Sykes’ death Iris jaunes was sold as part of his estate at Sotheby’s London in 1966.
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