Curator, Anne Umland: Vincent van Gogh painted this portrait of his friend, Joseph Roulin, in early 1889 while he was living in the south of France.
Joseph Roulin, the town’s postmaster, was a man whom van Gogh admired greatly. He wrote about him in his letters to his brother, Theo, describing Roulin as someone with deep socialist beliefs, and as a heavy drinker, which is perhaps reflected in the very ruddy way that he painted Roulin’s cheeks.
Van Gogh used very brightly colored oil paints to capture his friend; each individual brush stroke is left visible. Van Gogh claimed at this time that he no longer needed preparatory sketches and that he could draw directly in color. In fact, with this portrait he even boasted of having completed it in one single day.
At the time van Gogh painted this work, he spoke about how he wanted to arrive at a new, modern form of portraiture, one that had to do with a subject’s inner character, with their psyche, as opposed to being content with faithfully recording external appearances.
And he went about doing this through the use of these serpentine lines and intense colors and very graphic stylization that made it clear that this was a picture that was both part of and yet set apart from natural appearances and the external world.
Van Gogh expressed the hope that a hundred years later that these works might appear to future viewers like apparitions. And I think by that he captures this desire to create images that are possessed, even for us in the 21st century, of an almost hallucinatory reality, and then at the same time to create portraits that are eternal and enduring.