From Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo:
Joseph Roulin worked as the postmaster at the station in Arles. Van Gogh went there frequently to send paintings to his brother Theo in the Netherlands and they became close friends. In a letter to Theo he describes him as ‘a man who is not bitter, not melancholy, not perfect, not happy and also not always perfectly honest. But such a good fellow, so wise, so feeling and so faithful’.
Between August 1888 and April 1889 he painted six consecutive portraits of Joseph, three of which had flowers in the background. In this colourful painting he chose summer flowers. The poppies, cornflowers, daisies and roses are painted fairly precisely, in contrast to Joseph’s face and full beard with the stylized curls. Here, Van Gogh has applied the paint with a quick, fluent brushstroke.
Van Gogh was always looking for models. When the opportunity arose to also paint Joseph’s wife and three children, he grabbed it with both hands. He painted no fewer than twenty portraits of the Roulin family.
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Monday, 3 September 1888.
My dear Theo,
Yesterday I spent another day with that Belgian— who also has a sister among the Vingtistes — — the weather wasn’t good but it was a jolly good day for chatting; we went for a walk, and all the same we did see some very fine things at the bullfights and outside the town. We talked more seriously about the plan that if I keep on lodgings in the south, he should definitely set up a kind of post in the coal-fields. That then Gauguin and he and I, in cases where the importance of a painting would be a reason for travelling, could exchange places — sometimes being in the north, but in a familiar part of the country where we have a friend, sometimes in the south. You’ll see him soon, this young man with the Dante-like face, because he’s coming to Paris, and if the room’s available you’ll be doing him a favour by putting him up. He’s quite distinguished in appearance, and he’ll become so in his paintings, I believe. He likes Delacroix, and we talked a lot about Delacroix yesterday; actually he knew the violent sketch of Christ’s boat.
Ah well, thanks to him — at last I have a first sketch of that painting I’ve been dreaming about for a long time — the poet. He posed for it for me. His fine head, with its green gaze, stands out in my portrait against a starry, deep ultramarine sky; his clothing is a little yellow jacket, a collar of unbleached linen, a multicoloured tie. He gave me two sittings in one day.
Yesterday I received a letter from our sister, who has seen many things. Ah, if she could marry an artist, that wouldn’t be bad.
Well, we’ll have to go on urging her to untangle her personality, rather than her artistic abilities.
I’ve finished Daudet’s L’immortel — I rather like the remark by the sculptor Védrine, who says that achieving fame is something like when smoking, sticking your cigar in your mouth by the lighted end.
Now I definitely like L’immortel less, much less, than Tartarin. You know, it seems to me that L’immortel isn’t as fine as Tartarin for colour, because, with its quantity of subtle and accurate observations, it makes me think of Jean Béraud’s disheartening paintings, so dry, so cold. Tartarin, now, is so genuinely great — with the greatness of a masterpiece, just like Candide.
I would very much like to ask you to expose my studies from down here, which aren’t completely dry yet, to the air as far as possible. If they stayed shut away or in the dark, the colours would deteriorate. So, the portrait of the young girl, the harvest (wide landscape with the ruin in the background and the chain of the Alpilles), the small seascape, the garden with the weeping tree and the conifer bushes, if you could put them on stretching frames that would be good. I’m a little attached to those.
You can see clearly from the drawing of the small seascape that that one’s the most worked up.
I’m having 2 oak frames made, for my new head of a peasant and for my study of a poet. Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so clearly what I want. In life and in painting too, I can easily do without the dear Lord, but I can’t, suffering as I do, do without something greater than myself, which is my life, the power to create.
And if frustrated in this power physically, we try to create thoughts instead of children; in that way, we’re part of humanity all the same. And in a painting I’d like to say something consoling, like a piece of music. I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.
The portrait conceived in this way doesn’t become an Ary Scheffer, because there’s a blue sky behind it, as in the Saint Augustine. Because Ary Scheffer is so little of a colourist.
But this would be more in tune with what Eugène Delacroix was looking for and found in his Tasso in prison and so many other paintings depicting a true man. Ah, the portrait — the portrait with the model’s thoughts, his soul — it so much seems to me that it must come.
We talked a lot yesterday, the Belgian and I, about the advantages and disadvantages of this place. We quite agree on both. And on the immense interest that would hold for us, to be able to move about, sometimes the north, sometimes the south. He’s going to stay with MacKnight again for reasons of living more cheaply.
That, though, has a disadvantage for him, I believe, because living with an idler makes you idle. I believe you’ll enjoy meeting him, he’s still young. I believe that he’ll ask your advice on buying Japanese prints and Daumier lithographs. For those, the Daumiers, it would be good to buy more, because later on we won’t be able to find them. The Belgian was saying that with MacKnight he paid 80 francs for board and lodging. What a difference, then, living together — myself I have to pay 45 a month for my lodging alone. And so I always come back to the same calculation, that with Gauguin I’ll spend no more than on my own, and that without suffering thereby.
Now for them, it’s to be taken into account that they were very badly housed, not in terms of their beds, but of the possibility of working at home.
So I’m still between two currents of ideas, the first, material difficulties, turning this way and that to build up an existence, and then the study of colour. I still have hopes of finding something there. To express the love of two lovers through a marriage of two complementary colours, their mixture and their contrasts, the mysterious vibrations of adjacent tones. To express the thought of a forehead through the radiance of a light tone on a dark background. To express hope through some star. The ardour of a living being through the rays of a setting sun. That’s certainly not trompe-l’oeil realism, but isn’t it something that really exists? More soon; I’ll tell you when the Belgian might pass through, because I’ll see him again tomorrow.
Ever yours, Vincent
The Belgian said that at home they have a Degroux, the sketch for Saying grace in the Brussels museum.
The portrait of the Belgian has something of the portrait of Reid that you have, in terms of execution.