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The artist Vincent van Gogh

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There's something about Iris. Make that Iris, the indisputable gem among the three Vincent van Gogh paintings owned by the National Gallery of Canada. A crowd-pleaser since its arrival in Ottawa in 1954, it's on tap to be the starting point of Van Gogh: Up Close next spring at the National Gallery – the first major exhibition in Canada of paintings by the tormented Dutch master in more than 25 years.

At least 45 paintings from around the world, including six from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, are to be displayed May 25 through Sept. 3, 2012, it was announced Wednesday in Toronto.

Hopes are high that the show – five years in the making and focused on van Gogh's nature paintings and still lifes, and in particular, his use of the close-up – will both refresh our perceptions of the beloved post-Impressionist and break new ground in van Gogh scholarship.

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More than 120 years after his suicide ended a febrile painting career lasting just 10 years, you'd think there'd be nothing left to sleuth out on van Gogh, perhaps history's most researched artist.

Not so, according to Cornelia Homburg who, with NGC assistant curator (European art) Anabelle Kienle, is orchestrating the upcoming show in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which gets it first, in February).

Indeed, Ottawa's Iris is one of the works expected to be seen in a new light next year.

"Traditionally it's been dated to the spring of 1889," when van Gogh was living at an asylum in Provence, explained Homburg, former assistant curator at the Van Gogh Museum and chief curator at the St. Louis Art Museum. "And it's always been said that it's a study for Irises," a canvas completed by van Gogh in May 1889 and bought in 1990 by L.A.'s Getty Museum for more than $50-million (U.S.).

"But it doesn't look like a study at all," she asserted. "The Getty irises are much more fully developed, further in their bloom, whereas the irises in Ottawa are very slim, still coming out in bloom. Furthermore, the Ottawa painting is not done on canvas but on cardboard. Van Gogh rarely did that – once in a while in Paris and only when he was really in trouble and didn't have any canvas left."

According to Homburg, van Gogh had plenty of canvas when he was doing the Getty Irises – "but the next spring [1890]there's a moment when he's desperate for canvas and is writing his brother [Theo, his benefactor and dealer] 'I really need it blah-blah-blah.' "

By joining this Iris with paintings scholars are 100-per-cent sure van Gogh did in 1889 and 1890, the year of his death, Up Close provides an unprecedented opportunity to compare and contrast the artist's brush strokes and perspectives and thereby clear up parts of his legacy.

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"Really, it's very exciting," Homburg said.

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