Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889
Van Gogh portrayed his close friend Joseph Roulin, a postal administrator in Arles, at least six times over the course of eight months, always in his blue brass-buttoned uniform. These pictures represent the artist’s effort to make what he described as a “modern portrait,” a type of picture that would express a sitter’s character rather than merely imitate their likeness. He wanted to use color and brushwork to bring freshness and authenticity to the worn-out genre, and to depict the common man with a level of dignity usually reserved for rulers or religious figures. In this portrait, Vincent has contrasted the flat forms of Roulin’s uniform with the swirling patterns of his beard and the floral wallpaper of the background; the whole composition appears animated, even cosmic.
Though his face is made up of visible strokes of non-naturalistic colors, we nonetheless have an impression of a very real person, someone Vincent looked upon like an older brother, one who helped him through his most difficult times in Arles. The twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks give an impression of immediacy, friendliness, and the slight flush of a person known to drink. Flecked with turquoise and red, Roulin’s exaggerated beard seems to part like the Red Sea.
The postman’s still, pyramidal shape gives him the authority of a Byzantine icon. His professional cap, with its golden embroidery spelling POSTES, appears like a halo and sacred text above his head – as if declaring him to be St. Roulin, patron saint of postal bureaucrats everywhere.