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Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin

by VanGoghology

The Roulin family served as Van Gogh’s muses for several of his portrait paintings. Each family member played a significant role in shaping his artistic expression while living in the coastal city and commune in the south of France, Arles. This was a time when Vincent had rented the Yellow House, Gauguin moved in briefly, and the desperate severing of the ear took place.

Roulin was his support system throughout most of the traumatic ordeal, providing compassion and companionship while Vincent was admitted to the hospital in Arles.

The unique relationship between artist and muse not only captures the essence of his subjects but also conveys their innermost feelings, for Vincent and Joseph became lifelong friends.  

In a letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 5 August 1888

I have just made a portrait of a postman—or rather, two portraits even—Socratic type, no less Socratic for being something of an alcoholic, and with a high color as a result. His wife had just given birth, the good fellow was glowing with satisfaction. He’s a fierce republican, like père Tanguy. Goddamn, what a subject to paint à la Daumier, eh? He was getting too stiff while posing, and that’s why I painted him twice, the second time at a single sitting, on white canvas, background blue, almost white, in the face all the broken tones: yellow, green, purples, pinks, reds, the uniform Prussian blue trimmed with yellow.
Vincent to Emile

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin

These two paintings were (F433/JH 1524) above, and (F 432/JH 1522) seated below.

Contrary to popular belief, (and likely because Vincent referred to him as the postman) Joseph Roulin was not a mail carrier but worked as the brigadier-loader at the train station in Arles.

He was a kind, gentle, thoughtful man, and they shared a valuable friendship – Vincent initially had described him as: “A head something like that of Socrates, almost no nose, a high forehead, bald pate, small grey eyes, high-colored full cheeks, a big beard, pepper and salt, big ears. – A more interesting man than many people.”

In a letter to his sister Willemien, Vincent wrote:

If I can get the mother and father to agree to let me paint it, then I’ll do a child in a cradle one of these days. The father didn’t want to have it baptized — he’s a staunch revolutionary, and when the family complained, possibly on account of the christening feast, he said that the christening feast would go ahead after all, but that he would baptize it himself. Then he sang the Marseillaise hideously and named the child Marcelle, like the daughter of the good General Boulanger, to the great vexation of this innocent child’s grandmother and other members of the family.

Vincent to Wil

At this time, Vincent was working on three sunflower paintings, though went on to capture the entire family several times over. – He referred to the Madam Roulin set of portraits as ‘La Berceuse’ meaning the lullaby or the woman rocking the cradle. The piece of string she is holding was used to rock baby Marcelle’s cradle.

The Roulin Family Paintings:

  • Joseph Roulin – 6 paintings and 3 drawings
  • Madame Augustine Roulin – 6 paintings plus 2 with Baby Marcelle
  • Baby Marcelle Roulin – 3 paintings plus 2 with Madame Roulin.
  • Armand Roulin – 2 paintings.
  • Camille Roulin – 3 paintings.

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin3 copy min“I’ve done the portraits of an entire family, the family of the postman whose head I did before – the man, his wife, the baby, the young boy, and the 16-year-old son, all characters and very French, although they have a Russian look. No. 15 canvases. – You can sense how in my element that makes me feel, and that it consoles me to a certain extent for not being a doctor.

I hope to persevere with this and be able to obtain more serious sittings, which can be paid for with portraits. And if I manage to do this entire family even better, I’ll have done at least one job to my taste and personal.

Currently, I am in full, studies, studies, studies and it will go on for some time yet – such a mess that it breaks my heart – and yet that’ll give me neatness when I’m 40″.

On January 22, 1889, Joseph Roulin was transferred to Marseille, which was a great loss not only to the Roulin family but also to Vincent, who desperately needed companionship during this mentally tumultuous time.

POSTMAN JOSEPH ROULINMadame Roulin continued to sit for Vincent, although, by her own admission, she was afraid of him, after all, this was within a month of Vincent mutilating his left ear – Having said that, she was the first to visit Vincent in the hospital on Christmas day of 1888 – There was no doubt, that she had compassion in her heart for the mentally frail artist, perhaps also, there was some coaxing from her husband? Either way, Vincent had started the painting prior to his episode, and in a letter to Theo dated Jan 22, 1889, he noted “I have the portrait of Roulin’s wife on the go that I was working on before being ill. In it, I had ranged the reds from pink to orange, which rose into the yellows as far as lemon with light and dark greens. If I could finish that, it would give me great pleasure but I fear she won’t want to pose anymore, with her husband away.

Joseph Étienne Roulin, was born April 4, 1841, in Lambesc, (35 miles east of Arles) and passed away in Marseilles at the end of September 1903 – Joseph’s wife, Augustine Alex Pellicot, also born in Lambesc on October 9, 1851, died April 5, 1930

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Version 1 – Location: Boston, Museum of Fine Arts (F 508 JH 1671), Started December 1888; almost complete by December 23rd (when Van Gogh was hospitalized) – 2nd session: resumed January 21st, 1889, and was completed January 23rd.

Version 2 – Location: The Art Institute of Chicago (F 506 JH 1670), begun January 24th, completed by the 28th.

Version 3 – Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York (F 505 JH 1669), begun by January 30th and, completed by February 3rd.

After completing three versions of The Berceuse, Vincent offered Madame Roulin to select a version for her keeping “I’ve done the Berceuse three times, now since Mrs. Roulin was the model and I was only the painter, I let her choose between the three, her and her husband, only on the condition that I’d do a repetition for myself of the one she took, which I’m working on at present”.  She selected version 3, the “best one” according to Vincent stating that she had a “good eye”.

Version 4 – Location: Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum (F 507 JH 1672), Vincent began working on the fourth version by February 3rd, though was taken to hospital on February 7th having suffered a second breakdown.  He resumed with a second session on February 23rd or 24th after being released from hospital.

Version 5 – Location: Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum (F 504 JH 1655), begun March 29th 1889. 

And here I am, going back to my figure of the Berceuse for the 5th time. And when you see it you’ll agree with me that it’s nothing but a chromolithograph from a penny bazaar, and what’s more, it doesn’t even have the merit of being photographically correct in the proportions or in anything.

But anyway, I’m trying to make an image such as a sailor who couldn’t paint would imagine it when he was in the middle of the sea and thought of a woman on land.”

La berceuse Madame Roulin

Timeline of Arles events...

February 20, 1888: Vincent moves to Arles and rents a room in the 2-story Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel, 30, Rue Amédée Pichot (aka rue Cavalerie).

May 1, 1888: Van Gogh signs a lease for the Yellow House, No. 2 Place Lamartine. He rents the right side of the house for 15 francs a month, though needs to furnish and decorate before taking up residence.

May 7, 1888: While decorating the Yellow House, Vincent stayed at Joseph and Marie Ginoux’s Café de la Gare, 30 Place Lamartine, until 17 September.

September 17, 1888: Vincent moves into the Yellow House. 

October 23, 1888: Gauguin moves into the Yellow House. 

December 23, 1888: Vincent and Gauguin absorbed in a tumultuous argument resulting in Vincent slicing off part of his left ear.

December 24, 1888: Vincent is admitted to the hospital in Arles, where he is to receive psychological and physical treatment until January 8, 1889. After another psychotic episode, he returns on February 7th.

December 25, 1888: Gauguin leaves for Paris. Vincent and Gauguin never see one another again. 

February 26, 1889:  Vincent is committed to the hospital on police orders. A report is drawn up the following day by the Chief of Police Joseph d’Ornano, in response to a petition from 30 residents {allegedly) of Arles to institute the artist in the name of public safety.

April 29, 1889: Theo writes to Théophile Peyron, the Director of the St Rémy Asylum asking if his brother may be transferred to his facility. 

May 8, 1889: Van Gogh is admitted to the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy suffering from acute mania with visual and auditory hallucinations and is discharged on 16 May 1890.

The Yellow House
The Yellow House

While Roulin isn’t exactly old enough to be like a father to me, all the same he has silent solemnities and tendernesses for me like an old soldier would have for a young one. Always — but without a word — a certain something that seems to mean: we don’t know what will happen to us tomorrow but think of me in any event. And that does one good when it comes from a man who is neither embittered nor sad, nor perfect, nor happy, nor always irreproachably just, but such a good soul and so wise and so moved and so full of belief. Listen — I have no right to complain of anything to do with Arles when I think of certain people I’ve seen there and whom I’ll never be able to forget.

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