GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin

April 1889, Arles
Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo

Catalogue numbers: F 439, JH 1673.

In his letters to Émile Bernard van Gogh often expounded his conception of the portrait, illustrating his argument with constant reference to seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture. Hals and Rembrandt, he argued, had been first and foremost portraitists, but not in the sense of mere producers of facial resemblances. In their work, viewed as a whole, they produced a 'portrait' of a whole society, a lively, healthy and sane republic. Van Gogh wanted to achieve a comparable social representation, but the social relations of modern times were not as sane and healthy as in theirs. His project was both reactionary and utopian, and inevitably more limited. So he planned to paint the family of the disaffected republican Roulin, the postman. The project was conceived in the summer of 1888, pursued during that autumn, and finally accomplished in 1889. His first portrait of Roulin, a seated, three-quarter-length painting in which the sitter is facing to our right, is close to the portrait of Madame Roulin. She is also a seated, three-quarter-length composition, but faces left. The format is that of the pendant pairs of marital portraits common in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. The portrait of Roulin illustrated here was painted after the final one of Madame Roulin but it is linked with it, despite compositional differences, by the use of a decorative floral background, against which the head is set.