Friday, March 30, 2012

Van Gogh - The Roulin Family

Vincent van Gogh, La Bercuese, 1889
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Sunflowers, 1888
(National Gallery, London)
Vase with Twelve Sunflowers,  1888
(Neue Pinakhotek, Munich)

Van Gogh was living in Arles, when he painted a series of portraits of his friend postmaster Joseph Roulin and his family.  Monsieur and Madame Roulin took care of van Gogh at a time when he was lonely, both of his parents having past away and his brother living in Paris, they had become his close friends as well as a surrogate family.

Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1888
(Boston Museum of fine Arts)
In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh wrote that, of all genres, "the modern portrait" excited him the most and he said "I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize and which we try to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring." 1  Van Gogh's portraits having religious undertones is emphasized by the artist's vision of Madame Roulin's Portrait, La Berceuse, as a modern altarpiece. He intended to frame the picture with two paintings of sunflowers on both sides.  

In the two portraits, van Gogh has aged both of the figures. M. Roulin is depicted in his uniform sitting with an  air of authority. While painting this work, van Gogh wrote to his brother, "I am now at work with another model, a postman in blue uniform, trimmed with gold, a big bearded face very like Socrates."

In her portrait, Madame Roulin is sitting in a red arm chair holding a rope which is symbolic of the cradle she is supposed to be rocking.  According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, with the title of  La Berceuse, which means "lullaby or woman who rocks the cradle" this painting took on an added meaning.3  We can deduce that this image represents van Gogh's need for comfort since he has used the harmony of complementary colors that he called a lullaby of colors.  In La Berceuse, Madame Roulin represents a comforting figure which van Gogh thought to be consoling even to a sailor viewing it.

Contrary to popular belief, the allegations that he was mad and his paintings were the product of a rage of emotions or that he conceived of them as therapy are a little misleading. Van Gogh was a very learned man who approached painting as an intellectual theory.  He had some kind of a medical condition similar to epilepsy where he would have attacks and couldn't function at all.  He could only paint when he was calm and lucid.  Having said all that, it seems to be almost impossible to ignore van Gogh's state of mind while interpreting his art.  Van Gogh had moved to Arles with dreams of establishing an artist's colony there but failing to attract his artist friends to join him caused him to feel lonely and isolated.  These paintings were painted in 1888 in Arles, right before his breakdown. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that he may have wanted to make the Roulins his parents and himself the baby in the cradle but I like to think that they were also van Gogh's very creative explorations in art that make his body of work so exciting.


1 Museum of Modern Art Website,

2 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Website,

3 Metropolitan Museum of Art Website,

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