From the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC. :
Roses was painted shortly before Van Gogh's release from the asylum at Saint–Rémy. He felt he was coming to terms with his illness—and himself. In this healing process, painting was all–important. During those final three weeks of his recovery, he wrote his brother Theo, he had "worked as in a frenzy. Great bunches of flowers, violet irises, big bouquets of roses..."
This is one of two rose paintings Van Gogh made at that time. It is among his largest and most beautiful still lifes, with an exuberant bouquet in the glory of full bloom. Although he sometimes assigned certain meanings to flowers, Van Gogh did not make a specific association for roses. It is clear, though, that he saw all blossoming plants as celebrations of birth and renewal—as full of life. That sense is underscored here by the fresh spring green of the background. The undulating ribbons of paint, applied in diagonal strokes, animate the canvas and play off the furled forms of flowers and leaves. Originally, the roses were pink—the color has faded—and would have created a contrast of complementary colors with the green. Such combinations of complements fascinated Van Gogh. The paint is very thick—so thick that both rose paintings were left behind when Van Gogh left Saint–Rémy on May 16, 1890. As he explained to Theo, "these canvases will take a whole month to dry, but the attendant here will undertake to send them off after my departure." They arrived in Auvers by June 24.
Theo van Gogh to Vincent van Gogh. Paris, Friday, 3 January 1890.
My dear Vincent,
I was pleasantly surprised by your letter, for after receiving a line from Mr Peyron I didn’t dare hope that it would be possible for you to write, and I won’t hide from you that it grieved me very much. It’s curious that this has taken hold of you again, precisely a year after the first attack, and it proves that you must remain on your guard. So if you know that it’s dangerous at times to have paints near you, why not set them aside for a while by making drawings? Like the other times, this crisis may be followed by another, although much less violent. I think that at such moments you’ll do better not to want to work with colour. In a while from now nothing will prevent you from starting again.
As regards the consignment for Brussels, there’s a misunderstanding. In reading my letter to you, good Doctor Peyron made a mistake. The paintings were ready in time and are leaving today. What I was asking you was if you wanted to add a few drawings to them. To return again to what I was saying to you, if you didn’t work with colour for a while, nothing will prevent you from doing drawings. Wil is with us since yesterday evening, she looks well and brings good news from home, your letter gave Mother great pleasure. I have no news of Gauguin. He’s fortunate to have De Haan with him, for it’s he who pays everything for his upkeep and his paint, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to continue forever. I hope that you’re already much better and that the illness won’t return. Warm regards from Jo and from Wil. Be of good heart, and look after yourself.