“God damn it! What a motif to paint in the manner of Daumier, eh?” — Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to artist Emile Bernard (1888)
With about two years left to live, Vincent Van Gogh (1953 to 1890) was full of desperate plans. He constantly wrote to all artists and gallery owners he knew trying to make a new artistic school where he lived in Arles the South of France. Only Paul Gauguin would take Vincent up on his offer. In order to entice artists to make the move, Vincent painted several portraits of the locals, including the local “postie,” Joseph Roulin (1841 to 1903.)
Vincent was a great admirer of illustrator and caricaturist Honore Daumier (1808 to 1879.) Daumier would exaggerate certain features of his models in order to better convey the emotions of his works. Vincent may have also exaggerated certain features of Roulin, especially making the hands very large and the eyes quite small.
The Model Problem
Vincent did not have money to pay his models, so he often gave them liquor or tobacco as payment. Vincent may have argued with Roulin before persuading him to pose. Vincent tended to argue with everybody. Vincent often mailed odd-shaped packages to his younger brother Theo, a successful employee of a Paris art dealer. The postman was six foot five with a spectacular two-pronged beard.
Eventually, Vincent would paint other members of the Roulin family, but he would do at least five paintings and one pen and ink portrait of Joseph. Considered an outcast in his own family, the Roulins temporarily became a surrogate family for Vincent.
The Most Famous Version
All of the portraits of Joseph Roulin have the same title, but the most famous Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (also called F431) features the postal worker sitting in a chair against a light blue background. The light blue helped to emphasize the midnight-blue uniform and gold braiding on the uniform and hat. The actual background was most likely white or yellow. Unlike many of Vincent’s portraits, he used mostly realistic skin tones for Joseph.
It was painted in early August 1888. Originally considered worthless, it is now considered priceless. Its official home is the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but it is currently part of the MFA’s finest works on tour in Europe, America and Japan.
Van Gogh: The Life. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Random House; 2011.
Vincent Van Gogh: The Final Years. Horst Keller. Henry N. Abrams, Inc.; 1969.