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Joseph Roulin was born on 4 April 1841 in Lambesc. His wife, Augustine-Alex Pellicot, was also from Lambesc; they married 31 August 1868. Joseph, 47 years of age at the time of these paintings, was ten years his wife's senior. Theirs was a working class household. Joseph worked at the railroad station as an entreposeur des postes.
Van Gogh and Joseph Roulin met and became good friends and drinking companions. Van Gogh compared Roulin to Socrates on many occasions; while Roulin was not the most attractive man, van Gogh found him to be "such a good soul and so wise and so full of feeling and so trustful." Strictly by appearance, Roulin reminded van Gogh of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky - the same broad forehead, broad nose, and shape of the beard. Roulin saw van Gogh through the good and the most difficult times, corresponding with his brother, Theo following his rift with Gauguin and being at his side during and following the hospital stay in Arles.
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Thursday, 21 June 1888.
My dear Theo,
I’ve just read Geffroy’s article on Claude Monet. What he says is really very good. How I’d love to see that exhibition! If I console myself for not seeing it, it’s because when I look around me there are many things in nature that hardly leave me time to think about anything else. Because it’s harvest time just now.
I had a letter from Bernard, who says he feels very isolated but works all the same — and has written a new poem about himself in which he makes fun of himself in a rather touching way.
And he asks: ‘what’s the use of working’? But he asks that while working; he tells himself that work’s of no use whatsoever, while working — which is not at all the same thing as saying it while not working. I’d very much like to see what he’s doing.
I’m curious to know what Gauguin will do, and if Bernard won’t go to join him in Pont-Aven; I already gave each of them the other’s address a while ago, because they could need one another.
I’ve had a week of concentrated hard work in the wheatfields right out in the sun, the result was some studies of wheatfields, landscapes and — a sketch of a sower. In a ploughed field, a large field of clods of purple earth — rising towards the horizon — a sower in blue and white. On the horizon a field of short, ripe wheat. Above all that a yellow sky with a yellow sun.
You can sense from the mere nomenclature of the tonalities — that colour plays a very important role in this composition.
And the sketch as such — a no. 25 canvas — also worries me a lot, in the sense that I wonder whether I shouldn’t take it seriously and make a tremendous painting out of it. My God, how I’d love to do that. But I just wonder whether I’ll have the necessary power of execution.
I’m putting the sketch aside just as it is, hardly daring to think about it.
For such a long time it’s been my great desire to do a sower, but the desires I’ve had for a long time aren’t always achieved. So I’m almost afraid of them. And yet, after Millet and Lhermitte what remains to be done is... the sower, with colour and in a large format.
Let’s talk about something else. I have a model at last — a Zouave — he’s a lad with a small face, the neck of a bull, the eye of a tiger, and I started doing one portrait and started again on another. The bust-length I painted of him was terribly hard. In a uniform the blue of blue enamel saucepans, with dull orange-red trimmings and two lemon-yellow stars on his chest, a common blue and very hard to do.
I’ve stuck his very tanned, feline head, wearing a bright red cap, in front of a door painted green and the orange bricks of a wall. So it’s a coarse combination of disparate tones that isn’t easy to handle — the study I did of it seems very hard to me, and yet I’d always like to work on portraits that are vulgar, even garish like that one. It teaches me, and that’s what I ask of my work above all. And now the second portrait will be seated; full length, against a white wall.
Did you notice Dessins Raffaëlli — La rue, published recently by Le Figaro? The main one’s just like place Clichy, with all its bustle, it’s really alive. Figaro must also have published an issue with drawings by Caran d’Ache.
In my last letter I forgot to tell you that I received — a fortnight ago now — the consignment of colours from Tasset. I’m badly in need of a new consignment because for these studies of wheatfields and Zouaves I’ve eaten up plenty of tubes. Only a third or half is urgent.
Among the studies of wheatfields there’s the haystacks, for which I’ve sent you the first idea, on a square no. 30 canvas.
The past two days we’ve had torrential rain that lasts all day and will change the appearance of the fields. It came absolutely unexpectedly and suddenly, while everyone was out harvesting. They got most of the wheat in just as it was.
I’m hoping to do a tour in the Camargue next Friday, with a vet, there are bulls and almost wild white horses there, pink flamingos too.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was very beautiful.
The canvas isn’t at all urgent either.
I’m very curious to know what Gauguin will do, but to dare to urge him to come — no — because I’m no longer sure if that would sit well with him. And perhaps — given his large family it’s more his duty in fact to risk some big affairs in order to earn the money to put him at the head of his family again.
I should in any case not like to diminish an individual through an association, and if he feels the desire to try this affair in question he may have his reasons and I wouldn’t like to deflect him from it if in fact he were to be keen on it. Which remains to be seen and which will perhaps emerge from his reply.
More soon, I hope. Handshake, and thanks for the newspaper, and great success with your exhibition.
What’s père Tanguy doing, have you seen him recently? It’s still fine by me to ask him for paint, even if his isn’t quite as good, but only as long as it’s not too expensive.