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"Van Gogh's Postman: The Portraits of Joseph Roulin"
2001-02-02 until 2001-05-15
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY,
In 1989 The Museum of Modern Art acquired a superb
portrait by Vincent van Gogh, of his friend Joseph
Roulin. In the special exhibition Van Gogh's Postman:
The Portraits of Joseph Roulin, the Museum's
painting is shown with four other paintings and two
drawings that van Gogh made of this man, who was so
important in his life at Arles, in the South of France.
Joseph Roulin was a postal employee in Arles, and van
Gogh painted him for the first time in the summer of
1888, resplendent in his blue, gold-trimmed postal
uniform and cap, seated at a table and set against a light
blue background. The artist was fascinated by Roulin's
physiognomy. The face, which he deemed Socratic
because of the shortened nose, was flushed with a high
coloration van Gogh attributed to heavy drinking and was
garlanded with an abundant salt-and-pepper beard. But
van Gogh was at least as taken with the man's character.
Roulin was an ardent socialist, vehement in his support of
the left wing of French republican politics. Perhaps more
importantly for the lonely and isolated artist, Roulin was
also the devoted father of a large family.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo of his excitement
about the modern portrait, a picture that renders
character not by the imitation of the sitter's appearance
but through the independent, vivid life of color. Pursuing
this goal in the portraits he painted of Roulin, van Gogh
was influenced by the artists Honoré Daumier (for his
expressive and caricatural line) and Eugène Delacroix
(for his use of color). Another, more immediate influence
may have been Paul Gauguin, who worked with van
Gogh in Arles in the fall of 1888. Gauguin urged less
dependence on observation and more reliance on memory
and intuition. This advice may have been especially telling
in the case of van Gogh's later portraits of Roulin
(including MoMA's), which were likely painted after the
postman had left Arles for Marseilles.
Between the first Roulin portraits of August 1888 and
MoMA's 1889 painting, huge changes took place in van
Gogh's life and in his relationship to Roulin. Spurred by
a quarrel with Gauguin, van Gogh underwent a psychotic
episode in which he menaced his fellow artist and then
sliced off a part of his own ear, offering it as a gift to a
prostitute. Roulin tended to him in the aftermath of this
incident, seeing him committed to the psychiatric hospital
in Arles, watching over him during his internment there,
writing to van Gogh's family to reassure them of the
artist's health, and providing constant solace to the
recovering painter. As van Gogh struggled to regain his
mental equilibrium, this friendship and support, renewed
during Roulin's return visits from Marseilles, became
even more fundamentally important for him. The strength
of the MoMA portrait, its centered stability and immense
energy, must embody the deep admiration van Gogh felt
for his friend.
The exhibition Van Gogh's Postman: The Portraits of
Joseph Roulin, on view February 1 - May 15, 2001, was
organized by Kirk Varnedoe, Chief Curator, Department
of Painting and Sculpture.
Vincent van Gogh.
The Postman Roulin. 1889.
Oil on canvas,
25 5/8 x 21 1/4 (65 x 54 cm).
Photo courtesy Kröller-Müller Museum,