The Postman paintings

The Postman paintings

A moment in van Gogh's life

Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, in the south of France, in 1888. There he became friends with postal worker Joseph Roulin. In late July of that year, Joseph first sat for van Gogh. Over the next eight months, van Gogh made six paintings and three drawings of Joseph. Van Gogh also painted portraits of Joseph’s wife, Augustine, and the couple’s children. These portraits included the series known as La Berceuse, or “the lullaby,” showing Augustine rocking a cradle. Van Gogh enjoyed this work; he said in a letter to his brother Theo in August that, “I always feel confidence when doing portraits, it enables me to cultivate what’s best and most serious in me.” In spite of that confidence, in December of 1888 van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown, during which he mutilated his ear. Joseph looked after van Gogh’s house and helped him in other ways while the artist healed in the hospital. Van Gogh completed his last repetition of Joseph in March of 1889. The next month van Gogh left Arles and voluntarily entered a mental hospital near the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France.   

Who's in the painting?

In his portraits of Joseph Roulin and his family, van Gogh fulfilled his ambition to paint pictures of the people of the Provence region of France. He also liked this family. When Joseph first sat for van Gogh on July 31, 1888, he was in high spirits. That day his wife, Augustine, had given birth to a healthy baby girl. Joseph was, as van Gogh described, “in really fine feather and glowing with satisfaction” at the happy occasion. Van Gogh especially admired Joseph’s spunk and intelligence. In a letter written to his brother Wil on July 31, 1888, van Gogh described Joseph as “a fervent republican and socialist, [who] reasons very well, and knows many things.”

Van Gogh's artistic process

Van Gogh described his friend as having “a head something like that of Socrates, almost no nose, a high forehead, baldpate, small grey eyes, high-colored full cheeks, a big beard, pepper and salt, big ears.” This description provides a revealing clue about the keen observations that informed van Gogh’s artistic process. Notice how he focuses on these details throughout the series.

In his repetitions, van Gogh tried to capture the spirit of his friend Joseph. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to paint the postman as I feel him,” he said in an August letter to his brother Theo. Having noted in a letter that Joseph became “too stiff” the first time he posed, van Gogh asked him to pose again in early August. This time van Gogh worked very fast and concentrated on Joseph’s face. He painted this image, now owned by The Detroit Institute of Art, in nearly a single sitting, and then made just a few adjustments after the first layers of paint dried.

In this portrait, notice how van Gogh used uniform, blended, curving strokes for the background. He sculpted Joseph’s facial features fully, and he made his beard lively with upward-turning strokes at its sides. Look closely, and you will see that Joseph lacks his left ear in this picture. This ear will factor in later repetitions.

After next making three drawings of Joseph, van Gogh then painted four portraits that are nearly identical in size and composition. In the first, owned by the Kunstmuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, Joseph tilts his head against a gold background. His beard and facial features resemble geometric shapes, and his left ear has returned as a large, flat, red form. In addition, his face has intense yellow and green contrasts. Some scholars think that Paul Gauguin’s influence was at work here. In November and December of 1888, when van Gogh made this painting, Gauguin was staying with van Gogh. Gauguin urged van Gogh to be more inventive and abstract by pairing down to essential forms and experimenting with color.

Now look at the portraits owned by the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Van Gogh painted these pictures in April of 1889. In these later paintings, Joseph now has two ears, and his beard seems to have a life of its own! Do the swirling shapes of the beard seem familiar? Think of the clouds that van Gogh later painted in Starry Night. In the MoMA Postman, the background—full of dots in blue ovals—even resembles a starry night. It also resembles the background in one of the La Berceuse portraits, which van Gogh likely based on wallpaper in the Roulin home. 

All these details are signs of a careful process. In the Postman series, as with his other repetitions, van Gogh was not just copying his paintings. He was, instead, carefully refining and reinventing them to fulfill his particular vision.