From Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art
In early December 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from Arles where he was staying: "I have made portraits of a whole family, that of the postman whose head I had done previously, the man, his wife, the baby, the little boy, and the son of sixteen, all characters and very French."1 Not content with his initial portraits of the family, van Gogh continued to paint them, producing several pictures of Madame Roulin, the postman's wife. In two of them, including this one, she holds the couple's daughter, Marcelle, born in July 1888. With a relaxed pose and her face in shadow, Madame Roulin is a passive figure, while the baby, whose chubby face looks outward to engage us directly, is the more active and central subject. Van Gogh's work with color is one of the most dramatic aspects of the series; each family member is distinguished by bold primary colors in their clothing and contrasting backgrounds that correspond to different points on a color wheel. Here, the figures are painted in shades of green and white with blue outlines and a yellow ground. The use of these three colors, adjacent on the color wheel, underlines the closeness of mother and child. Jennifer A. Thompson, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 90.
To Emile Bernard. Arles, on or about Thursday, 7 June 1888.
My dear old Bernard,
More and more it seems to me that the paintings that ought to be made, the paintings that are necessary, indispensable for painting today to be fully itself and to rise to a level equivalent to the serene peaks achieved by the Greek sculptors, the German musicians, the French writers of novels, exceed the power of an isolated individual, and will therefore probably be created by groups of men combining to carry out a shared idea.
One has a superb orchestration of colours and lacks ideas.
The other overflows with new, harrowing or charming conceptions, but is unable to express them in a way that’s sufficiently sonorous, given the timidity of a limited palette. Very good reason to regret the lack of an esprit de corps among artists, who criticize each other, persecute each other, while fortunately not succeeding in cancelling each other out.
You’ll say that this whole argument is a banality. So be it — but the thing itself — the existence of a Renaissance — that fact is certainly not a banality.
A technical question. Do give me your opinion in next letter.
I’m going to put the black and the white boldly on my palette just the way the colourman sells them to us, and use them as they are.
When — and note that I’m talking about the simplification of colour in the Japanese manner — when I see in a green park with pink paths a gentleman who’s dressed in black, and a justice of the peace by profession (the Arab Jew in Daudet’s Tartarin calls this honourable official shustish of the beace), who’s reading L’Intransigeant.
Above him and the park a sky of a simple cobalt.
Then why not paint the said shustish of the beace with simple bone black and L’Intransigeant with simple, very harsh white?
Because the Japanese disregards reflection, placing his solid tints one beside the other — characteristic lines naively marking off movements or shapes.
In another category of ideas, when you compose a colour motif expressing, for example, a yellow evening sky — The harsh, hard white of a white wall against the sky can be expressed, at a pinch and in a strange way, by harsh white and by that same white softened by a neutral tone. Because the sky itself colours it with a delicate lilac hue.
Again, in this very naive landscape, which is meant to show us a hut, whitewashed overall (the roof, too), situated in an orange field, of course, because the sky in the south and the blue Mediterranean produce an orange that is all the more intense the higher in tint the range of blues —
The black note of the door, of the window panes, of the little cross on the rooftop, creates a simultaneous contrast of white and black just as pleasing to the eye as that of the blue with the orange.
To take a more entertaining subject, let’s imagine a woman dressed in a black and white checked dress, in the same primitive landscape of a blue sky and an orange earth — that would be quite amusing to see, I imagine. In fact, in Arles they often do wear white and black checks.
In short, black and white are colours too, or rather, in many cases may be considered colours, since their simultaneous contrast is as sharp as that of green and red, for example. The Japanese use it too, by the way — they express a young girl’s matt and pale complexion, and its sharp contrast with her black hair wonderfully well with white paper and 4 strokes of the pen. Not to mention their black thorn-bushes, studded with a thousand white flowers.
I’ve finally seen the Mediterranean, which you’ll probably cross before me. Spent a week in Saintes-Maries, and to get there crossed the Camargue in a diligence, with vineyards, heaths, fields as flat as Holland. There, at Saintes-Maries, there were girls who made one think of Cimabue and Giotto: slim, straight, a little sad and mystical. On the completely flat, sandy beach, little green, red, blue boats, so pretty in shape and colour that one thought of flowers; one man boards them, these boats hardly go on the high sea — they dash off when there’s no wind and come back to land if there’s a bit too much. It appears that Gauguin is still ill. I’m quite curious to know what you’ve done lately; I’m still doing landscapes, croquis enclosed. I’d very much like to see Africa too, but I hardly make any firm plans for the future, it will depend on circumstances. What I’d like to know is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky. Fromentin and Gérôme see the earth in the south as colourless, and a whole lot of people saw it that way. My God, yes, if you take dry sand in your hand and if you look at it closely. Water, too, air, too, considered this way, are colourless. No blue without yellow and without orange, and if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well, surely. Ah well, you’ll tell me that I write you nothing but banalities. Handshake in thought.