Vincent van Gogh Portrait of Joseph Roulin Arles, early 1889

  • MoMA, Floor 5, 504 The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries

Joseph Roulin, a postal employee, was a friend of Van Gogh’s when the artist lived in Arles, a town in the South of France, in 1888–89. Van Gogh depicted Roulin in the uniform he always wore proudly, setting him against an imaginative backdrop of swirling flowers. The artist’s use of bold colors and flat patterns would have resonated with Austrian artists who were part of the Vienna Secession movement that formed a decade later.

Gallery label from 2024
Additional text

This portrait of Joseph Roulin is one of six van Gogh painted of his close friend, a postal employee in the southern French town of Arles, a fifteen-hour train ride from Paris. Van Gogh had moved to Arles in 1888, hoping to create an artists cooperative there. The plan never came to fruition, and the artist became lonely and isolated. He found comfort and companionship with the Roulin family, and they are the subjects of many of his paintings. In this portrait, Roulin is depicted in the uniform he always wore proudly, set against an imaginative backdrop of swirling flowers. In a letter to his brother Theo, the artist wrote that, of all genres, "the modern portrait" excited him the most: "I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we try to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring."

Gallery label from 2012.

Joseph Roulin—who appears in this portrait resplendent in his blue uniform against a floral background that echoes his lush, swirling beard—was among Vincent van Gogh’s most important friends. The two lived on the same street in Arles, in the South of France, where Roulin worked for the postal service. Van Gogh was fascinated by his friend’s face, but he was at least as taken with the man’s character. Roulin was an ardent socialist, vehement in his support of the left wing of French republican politics. Perhaps more importantly for the lonely, isolated artist, Roulin was also the devoted father of a large family.

Van Gogh painted Roulin for the first time in the summer of 1888. Many other portraits would follow, as would portraits of his wife and three children. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, of his excitement about “the modern portrait,” a picture that expresses character not by the imitation of the sitter’s appearance but through the independent, vivid life of color. Among his influences in his pursuit of modern portraiture was Paul Gauguin, who worked with van Gogh in Arles in the fall of 1888. Gauguin urged less dependence on observation and more reliance on memory and intuition. This advice may have been especially telling in the case of van Gogh’s later portraits of Roulin (including this one) which were likely painted after the postman had left Arles for a better paying position in Marseilles.

Spurred by an argument with Gauguin, van Gogh underwent a psychotic episode in which he menaced his fellow artist and then sliced off a part of his own ear. Roulin tended to van Gogh in the aftermath of this incident, seeing him committed to the psychiatric hospital in Arles, watching over him during his internment there, writing to his family to reassure them of his health, and providing constant solace to the recovering artist. As van Gogh struggled to regain his mental equilibrium, this friendship and support, renewed during Roulin’s return visits after he had moved to Marseilles, became even more fundamentally important for him.

Oil on canvas
25 3/8 x 21 3/4" (64.4 x 55.2 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange)
Object number
Painting and Sculpture

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Provenance Research Project

This work is included in the Provenance Research Project, which investigates the ownership history of works in MoMA's collection.

1889, Vincent van Gogh, Arles, France.
April 1889 - January 1891, Theo van Gogh (1857-1891), Paris, acquired from his brother Vincent van Gogh.
January 1891 - December 1923, Johanna (Jo) van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam, in trust for her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, Amsterdam, inherited from Theo van Gogh.
December 1923/January 9, 1924 - February 1924, Tate Gallery (National Gallery, Modern Foreign Section), purchased through Jo van Gogh-Bonger and Leicester Galleries, London.
February 1924 - February 21, 1924, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam, reacquired by exchange from Tate Gallery.
February 21, 1924 - March 30, 1926, Galerie Thannhauser (Siegfried Rosengart), Lucerne, purchased through Jo van Gogh-Bonger and Leicester Galleries, London.
March 30, 1926 - 1946, Bernhard Mayer, Zürich/Ascona and New York, purchased from Galerie Thannhauser.
1946, Heirs of Bernhard Mayer
1989, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired from the above through Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zürich.

For further reading: Die Sammlung Bernhard Mayer. Exhibition at Kunsthaus Zurich 1998 (exhibition catalogue).

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