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Modern Portraits

Explore how early modern painters pushed the boundaries of traditional portraiture.


Portrait of Joseph Roulin

Vincent van Gogh
(Dutch, 1853–1890)

1889. Oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 21 3/4" (64.4 x 55.2 cm)

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.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.

A Family of Sitters
Van Gogh painted more than 20 portraits of Joseph Roulin and his family. In December 1888, he wrote to his brother, Theo, “And if I manage to do this whole family better still, at least I shall have done something to my liking and something individual.” Van Gogh’s thickly painted, vividly colorful portraits changed the way many artists and patrons viewed portraiture.