From The Museum of Modern Art, New York:
This portrait of Joseph Roulin is one of six van Gogh painted of his close friend, a postal employee in the southern French town of Arles, a fifteen-hour train ride from Paris. Van Gogh had moved to Arles in 1888, hoping to create an artists cooperative there. The plan never came to fruition, and the artist became lonely and isolated. He found comfort and companionship with the Roulin family, and they are the subjects of many of his paintings. In this portrait, Roulin is depicted in the uniform he always wore proudly, set against an imaginative backdrop of swirling flowers. In a letter to his brother Theo, the artist wrote that, of all genres, "the modern portrait" excited him the most: "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."
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 1 September 1888.
My dear Theo,
A line in haste to thank you very, very much indeed for the prompt dispatch of your letter. In fact, my chap had already come first thing this morning for his rent. Of course, I had to make my decision known today whether or not I’d keep the house on (because I rented it until Michaelmas, and you have to renew or withdraw beforehand). I told my chap that I’d take it on again for 3 months only, or preferably by the month. That way, supposing that our friend Gauguin arrived, we wouldn’t have a very long lease ahead of us should he not like it.
Far too often I become thoroughly discouraged, thinking about what Gauguin will say about this part of the country in the long run. Isolation here is quite considerable, and while paying, you have to hack each step out of the ice in order just to get from one day’s work to the same the next day. The difficulty about models is there, but patience, and especially always having a few sous, can help there, of course. But this difficulty is real.
I feel that even at the present time I could be an entirely different painter if I was able to settle the question of models. But I also feel the possibility of getting dull-witted and of seeing the time of potency in artistic production disappearing, just as in the course of life our balls start to let us down. That’s inevitable, and of course, here as there it’s self-confidence and striking while the iron’s hot that’s pressing.
And so I very often feel despondent. But Gauguin and so many others are in exactly the same position, and we must above all look for the remedy within ourselves, in good will and patience. By being content to be no more than mediocrities. Acting like that, perhaps we’ll open up a new path.
I’m very curious to receive your next letter, reporting more fully on your visit to Bing. It doesn’t surprise me that you say that after our sister’s departure you’ll feel an empty gap. You must above all try to fill it. And what could there be against Gauguin’s coming to live with you? That way he could satisfy himself on the subject of Paris while working at the same time.
But in that case it would only be fair that he should also reimburse you in paintings for what you would do for him. For me, it’s a constant sorrow to do so comparatively little with the money I spend.
My life is restless and anxious, but then, moving house and moving around a lot, perhaps I would only make things worse. It makes enormous trouble for me that I don’t speak the Provençal patois.
I’m still thinking very seriously about using coarser colours, which would be no less solid for being less finely ground. At present I often stop myself when planning a painting, because of the paint it costs us. Now, that’s rather a pity, all the same, for this good reason, that perhaps we have the power to work today, but we don’t know if it’ll still be there tomorrow.
All the same, rather than losing physical strength, I’m regaining it, and my stomach, especially, is stronger. I’m sending you 3 volumes of Balzac today; it’s really a bit old, etc., but the work of Daumier and De Lemud is no uglier for belonging to a period that doesn’t exist any more. At the moment, I’m at last reading Daudet’s L’immortel, which I find very beautiful but hardly consoling.
I believe that I’ll have to read a book about elephant hunting, or a totally mendacious book of categorically impossible adventures, by Gustave Aimard for example, in order to get over the heartbreak that L’immortel will leave in me. Particularly because it’s so beautiful and so true, in making one feel the emptiness of the civilized world. I must say that for real power I prefer his Tartarin though. Warm regards to our sister, and once again, thank you for your letter.