Van Gogh’s Postman - His Friend Joseph Roulin

Van Gogh’s Postman – His Friend Joseph Roulin

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In many of his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh mentions his friend The Postman, Joseph Roulin. It seems that Vincent Van Gogh was not only taken by his friend’s face but also by his character.

When Vincent Van Gogh lived in the yellow house in Arles, he befriended a man named Joseph Roulin, the postman. Van Gogh could not afford models to sit for him, so when he was in Arles, Joseph Roulin and his entire family would sit for Van Gogh to paint their portraits. Van Gogh painted over 20 portraits of Joseph Roulin and his family.

Table of Contents

Who Is Joseph Roulin, The Postman?

Portrait Of The Postman Joseph Roulin – By Vincent van Gogh

Joseph Roulin and his family would have probably never been known to most people except that they sat many times to be used as models for Vincent Van Gogh‘s paintings. Joseph Roulin also became Vincent Van Gogh’s loyal friend.

In 1888 Vincent Van Gogh moved to Arles in Southern France. Roulin, his family, and Van Gogh lived on the same street where Joseph Roulin worked as a postman for the postal service.

In his work at the postal service, Roulin was a brigadier-charger which means that he was responsible for loading and unloading stacks of mail.

Roulin was a devoted father of a large family. And he was also an ardent socialist and supporter of the left wing of French republican politics.

It was not easy for Vincent to find models willing to sit for him to paint. But because of his friendship with Joseph Roulin, he not only painted him but also painted his wife, their sons Armand and Camille, and their baby daughter Marcelle.

Van Gogh has over 20 works of art depicting the Roulin family. For him, they were essential art models and friends.

In a letter from the 31st of July 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote this to his brother Theo about his paintings of Joseph Roulin the Postman.

“Now I’m working with another model, a postman in a blue uniform with gold trimmings, a big, bearded face, very Socratic. A raging republican, like père Tanguy. A more interesting man than many people.”

Vincent van gogh to theo Van gogh – 31 July 1888

In many other letters to his brother Vincent Van Gogh also said Joseph Roulin resembled the philosopher Socrates. This was undoubted because Joseph Roulin had a shaggy beard and Republican convictions.

In referring to Pere Tanguy, Vincent Van Gogh was referring to Julien Francois Tanguy, a French Art dealer, gallery owner, art collector, and art patron who was one of the first to purchase Impressionism paintings. He was also a supporter, and part of the short-lived Paris Communards, a revolutionary government that sized power in Paris for a short time in 1871.

In another letter to his sister Willemien, Vincent further explains his fascination with Joseph Roulin, his new friend, the postman.

“I’m now working on the portrait of a postman with his dark blue uniform with yellow.
A head something like that of Socrates, almost no nose, a high forehead, bald pate, small grey eyes, high-coloured full cheeks, a big beard, pepper and salt, big ears. The man is a fervent republican and socialist, reasons very well and knows many things. His wife gave birth today and so he’s in really fine feather and glowing with satisfaction.
In fact I much prefer to paint something like this than flowers.”

Vincent Van Gogh to his Sister Willemien – 31 July 1888

Marcelle, Joseph and Augustine’s daughter, was born on the 31st of July 1888. Vincent Van Gogh would also use her as a model and paint her.

Joseph Roulin and Vincent Van Gogh became not only friends but drinking buddies. Roulin and his family proved to be very loyal and kind to Van Gogh and saw Van Gogh through some rough and challenging times.

The Schoolboy (The Postman Son), 1888
Painting By Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh seems to have been friends with the entire family. He used the whole family as his model on many occasions. In a letter on the 1st of December, 1888, to his brother Theo he writes about the painting of the Roulin family:

But I’ve done the portraits of an entire family, the family of the postman whose head I did before – the man, his wife, the baby, the young boy and the 16-year-old son, all characters and very French, although they have a Russian look. 

Vincent Van gogh To His Brother Theo – 1 December 1888

We believe that in this letter, he is referring to a portrait of Joseph Roulin, the postman, and of Augustine Roulin, a portrait of Marcelle Roulin in her mother’s arms, Camille Roulin, who is the young son, and Armand Roulin, who is at the time 16 years old.

Vincent Van Gogh And The Postman Portraits Shows A New Way To Do Portraits

There are many reasons why Joseph Roulin and his family’s portraits are so important in the Van Gogh collection. One of the reasons is that Vincent Van Gogh showed a new way to do paintings that were not being done before. He placed the family with exciting backgrounds and used colors to convey his message.

Madame Roulin and Her Baby, 1888
Painting By Vincent van Gogh

In a letter to his brother Theo in speaking about Joseph Roulin and his family Vincent Van Gogh said this about the portraits he was doing:

“And if I manage to do this entire family even better, I’ll have done at least one thing to my taste and personal.”

Vincent Van Gogh to His Brother Theo – 1 December 1888

He understood that the portraits he was doing of Joseph Roulin and his family were not usually the type of portraits most people did during that time. But because Vincent Van Gogh was such a keen artist who followed his instincts more than others did during that time, he showed all artists after him a new way to look at portraits.

And we need to thank Joseph Roulin and his family for being willing to sit for all those paintings for Van Gogh and Vincent Van Gogh for having the courage always to stay true to his artistic style.

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