Vincent van Gogh - Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin 1888

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin 1888
Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin
Oil on canvas 81.2 x 65.3 cm. Arles: early August, 1888
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts

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From Boston Museum of Fine Arts:
One of van Gogh’s closest friends and favorite sitters in Arles was the local postman, Joseph Roulin. While painting this work, van Gogh wrote to his brother, “I am now at work with another model, a postman in blue uniform, trimmed with gold, a big bearded face, very like Socrates.” Indeed, the modest postman has all the authority of an admiral. Van Gogh also painted several portraits of Madame Roulin, as well as images of their children, delighted, as he wrote, to depict “a whole family.”

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, on or about Tuesday, 9 February 1886.
My dear Theo,
I have to write to you one more time because the sooner we can take an outright decision the better. As regards a studio — if we could find, in one and the same house, a room with an alcove and also a garret or a corner attic — then you could have that apartment of room and alcove, and we could make it just as comfortable as possible. And during the day the room could serve as studio, and the garret could serve for various more unsightly tools or for dirty work, and I could also sleep there — and you in the studio alcove.
It seems to me that such an arrangement or something similar would be perfectly satisfactory for the first year. What I’m not sure about is whether we’ll get on personally, although I don’t despair of it — but it’ll be much more agreeable for you to come home to a workplace than to an ordinary room, which always has something gloomy about it. And it’s that gloom that’s our worst enemy. When the doctor tells me that I have to take better care of myself, physically — well, who knows whether such a measure mightn’t do you good too. For you’re also neither happy nor in good spirits — let’s not mince words, you have too much worry and too little prosperity.
But perhaps it’s because of our policy that we’re each too much alone and our forces and resources are too divided, and in that form insufficient. So — unity is strength — would certainly be much better.
So there has to be more life, it seems to me, and we have to throw out all sorts of doubts and a certain lack of confidence.
Do you want a reason on which one can rely to preserve one’s serenity, even when one stands alone and isn’t understood and one’s material well-being has gone by the board? Well there’s still this — I believe — one feels instinctively that a tremendous amount is changing, and everything will change. We’re in the last quarter of a century that will end with another colossal revolution. But suppose we both yet see the beginning of it at the end of our lives.
We’ll certainly not experience the better times of clear air and refreshment of the whole of society after those great storms. All the same, it’s something not to be taken in by the falseness of one’s time, in so far as one detects in it the unhealthy closeness and mugginess of the hours that precede the thunderstorm.
And says — it’s oppressive for us — but the next generations will be able to breathe more freely. Men like Zola and the De Goncourts believe in it with the simplicity of overgrown children. They, the most rigorous analysts — whose diagnosis is both so merciless and so accurate.
And particularly the one you mentioned, Turgenev, and Daudet — they don’t work without a goal or without looking towards the other side.
Only they all, and rightly, avoid prophesying utopias and are pessimists in so far as if one analyzes, one sees so terribly in the history of this century the way the revolutions fail, no matter how nobly they begin.
You see, where one gets support is when one doesn’t always have to walk alone with one’s feelings and thoughts, when one works and thinks in a group of people together. Then at the same time one can do more — and one is infinitely happier.
Well I’d already wanted to have that between us for a long time, and you see, I imagine that if you stayed on your own you’d become depressed because the times aren’t encouraging unless one finds satisfaction in one’s work. I’m sending you that novel by De Goncourt specifically for the introduction above all — which contains a résumé of their works and aims. You’ll see that these fellows haven’t been precisely happy, in the same way as Delacroix said about himself, I haven’t been happy at all in the sense in which I understood it / wanted it in the past.
Well, whether or not it comes soon — a moment will come for you, too, when you’ll be sure that material well-being has gone by the board, fatally and irrevocably. I’d safely dare say that, but adding this, that I think that at that same moment there will be a certain compensation of feeling a capacity for work.
What touches me is the magnificent serenity of the great thinkers of the present day, like, say, the last walk of the two De Goncourts, which you’ll find described. The last days of the ageing Turgenev were like that, too — he was with Daudet a great deal then. Sensitive, subtle, intelligent as women, sensitive to their own suffering, too, and always still full of life and self-assurance, no indifferent stoicism, no contempt for life — I say again, those fellows, they die like women die. No idée fixe about God or abstractions — always on the ground floor of life itself and attached only to that, again, like women who have loved much — touched and — as Silvestre says of Delacroix — thus died, almost smiling.
Meanwhile, we haven’t yet reached that point, on the contrary we’re at the point of working first, living first — most likely with the normal kind of well-being going by the board. But whatever the future may be, you can be sure that I’d be very pleased indeed if I could work with Cormon for a year or so, unless there’s somewhere better for drawing in L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts or other studios I’ve heard about here.

The ancients won’t prevent us from being realistic, come on — on the contrary. Of course I’m also desperately longing for French paintings.
Apropos, don’t you like this?

Everything that is bad came from woman —
Clouded Reason, an appetite for lucre, betrayal
Golden cups in which wines are mixed with lees.
Every crime, every happy lie, every kind of madness
Comes from her..... Adore her none the less, since the gods
Made her... and — she is the best thing that they have made.

After all, working has the secret of being able to give someone a second youth.
Tell me, have you ever read anything by Carlyle? Actually that’s not necessary when one sees the fellow’s face and knows his work is something like Michelet. Whistler and Legros have both made his portrait. That’s another one who dared a great deal and had a different insight on many things from the rest. But the more I look into it, always the same story — lack of money, poor health, opposition, isolation, in short, trouble from beginning to end.
Mantz’s piece about Paul Baudry was very good, and I found that ‘he worked on the renewal of the smile’ particularly singular.
Could one say of Delacroix ‘he worked on the renewal of passion’? Perhaps so. Anyway — do write soon in any event, and regards.
Yours truly,