This article is a translation of one written in 1955 in the journal of the French Postal and Telecommunications Authority. Some terms such as "brigadier-chargeur" and "itinerant" are difficult to translate. They probably refer to specific positions in the Post Office.
This article does not aim to tell the friendship which links Van Gogh and Roulin, but tries to clarify some details that are not known or left in the shadows by the biographers of the painter.Vincent van Gogh is in full glory. The exhibition of the artists of Auvers-on-Oise, his recent biography by Henri Perruchot (1), the announcement of the publication of his complete correspondence by Julliard, attest to this. Undoubtedly, people who, in their thoughts express in superlatives their admiration of Van Gogh's work have not overlooked this, but those who beyond time-honoured judgment, seek the pictorial expression of genius, the human heart, are perhaps more numerous. Vincent van Gogh was deprived during his life not only of healthy and sufficient food, but above all of love. Certainly, the brotherhood linking him to Theo was exemplary until death, but how many others could respond to his need to be loved?
Colleagues and partners ran away after mocking behaviour, disputes or simply without a word. And when his cousin Kee told him: "Never! No, never!" (T153) (A) his heart was marked with pain for all his life. A burn more serious than he got when he held his fingers above the flame of the lamp to get the right to see Kee.
This most passionate of men who, except for family love, knew only contempt, fear or incomprehension.
The letters of Vincent van Gogh form an overwhelming human document; reading them cannot leave you insensitive. An episode of his life held my attention. In Arles, Vincent had bond of friendship with a postman named Roulin. A durable friendship and -- unlike the others -- stable, warming his heart, because the friendship of Roulin held both the man and his work in high esteem. Who was this postman? What happened to them, him and his family, painted so often by Vincent? Did he die recently? Are his children still alive? My search enabled me to find one of the two children: Mrs. Marcelle Roulin. She wanted to meet me, and I collected her testimony, which no one had asked for previously.
Van Gogh announced in a letter (2) to his brother Theo the birth of "Roulin baby". He wrote, speaking of the father "the fellow was aglow with satisfaction" (B14) (B), because "the child . . . . had come to them smiling and very well behaved." Mrs. Marcelle Roulin, who today is 67 years old, obviously has no direct memories of Van Gogh, but she heard her parents frequently evoke "Vincent" (Van Gogh considered his name to be difficult to pronounce, especially in Provence, and he called himself by his first name which he also used to sign his work). She grew up without being amazed by the six paintings Van Gogh gave to Roulin and which decorated her parent's bedroom, when they retired in Lambesc. She could see the portrait of her father, that of her mother, one of each of her two brothers: Armand and Camille, finally one of herself, posed by the chimney. A canvas of oleanders in a vase completed this extraordinary collection. It was in 1895, she believes that Ambroise Vollard -- the art dealer who had a good sense of the value of not only the Impressionists, but later the Cubists and the Fauvists -- wrote to her father. To improve his financial situation on retirement, Roulin exchanged telegrams. When Vollard made his proposal, an attack of sciatica immobilized our "postman", thus depriving him of this additional profit. He accepted the 450 francs (3) that the art dealer offered him. The canvases of his unhappy friend began to be sought after; he could be twice delighted.
Arriving in Arles at the end of February 1888, Van Gogh took temporary lodgings in a "Cafe" on Rue de la Cavalerie. Roulin was living on the same street. Perhaps the two men met at the cafe? Or perhaps through passing each other on their way?. The painter had probably been impressed with the hardly banal aspect of this postman, almost two meters tall: Joseph Roulin, 47 years old, wearing a brown beard with two points, could not pass unnoticed in his beautiful "blue uniform decorated with gold" (T516).
For all those which have seen his portraits, except for the few people who know the history of the Administration des Postes' uniforms, Roulin was a postman and, like the others, the title Vincent gave him had stuck. This "man more interesting than many people" (T516) was, in fact, a "brigadier-chargeur" in the Arles train station, in charge of unloading the post bags. His profession must have given him an appetite because at the beginning of their friendship Van Gogh wrote to his brother: "The good fellow, who would not accept money, cost more eating and drinking with me, and I gave him Rochefort's The Lantern besides. But that is a trifling evil, considering that he posed very well..." (T518). Roulin undoubtedly thought of making some savings from his salary. Van Gogh himself, who was not unaware of misery, felt sorry for him: "His wages here were 135 francs per month (4), to raise three children (5) and provide a living for himself and his wife! You can imagine how they do it. And that's not all, the increase is a remedy worse than the sickness itself. What a civil service!. and in what times we live!".
This poor attempt makes it possible to understand the feelings, then revolutionary, of Roulin. Feelings which were not frightening to Vincent: "But I once watched him sing the "Marseillaise" and I thought I was watching '89, not next year, but 99 years ago. It was a Delacroix, a Daumier, straight from the old Dutchmen" (T520). This "mad republican" admired Eugène Pelletan and Rochefort -- who appear more liberal to us than revolutionary -- and was attracted, like the latter, to General Boulanger. It was these who had found the Republic more beautiful than the Empire and who were disconcerted at being governed by the scandal-prone bourgeoisie. Even so, neither Roulin nor Van Gogh had any illusions that a triumph by General Boulanger would be any different. After the resounding victory of the latter in January 1889 in a Parisian by-election, the two friends expected the worst given "so many hearts . . . given in advance to be used as cannon-fodder". But "the Revenge General" did not dare to march on the Élysée and, the same year, fled to Belgium.
Undoubtedly, the southern kindness, the "exemplary" family life of Roulin, married for twenty years, plus the "good children" of Provence could explain this friendship.
According to Mrs. Marcelle Roulin, her father proposed sometimes: "Vincent, come and eat soup at the house." But the friendship linking the two men was, probably, on a plane that neither one nor the other consciously sensed.
The canvases of Van Gogh, particularly those of this time reflect a Dionesian feeling towards life. Vincent expresses the vital force in all that he painted: landscapes, trees, flowers, people. The vigour in everything he came across, the exaltation. He said himself that he sometimes felt like "a prophetess before the sacrificial alter in a sacred delirium" (T576?) after he had chewed bay leaves. The bay-trees flowering under the Provence sun so similar to that of Greece, Vincent painted them, trying to resist its quasi-mystical exaltation. What a marvelous counterpart to this feeling did he not find in Roulin! This giant who has the aspect of "Socrates" and of "a satyr" (said Vincent) who loved to drink, to eat, to take care of his children with his wife, who is a living expression of what Van Gogh feels with such passion: this is what must link the two men.
One can be also astonished that Roulin liked and understood the paintings of his friend. Even though he hardly knew how to write, he was able to appreciate "a nice article on Monet" in Figaro (T583). The friendship linking him with Vincent helped him to guess the unique importance of other painters' works. The elite of the time (except for G.A. Aurier, critic for the Mercure de France) had barely begun to acknowledge the Impressionists.
Look at the portrait of Roulin. The lines of painting are directed towards the beard (6) like the tension fields of a magnetic spectrum. What a quiet assurance, what a force in his face!
This type of man, Van Gogh judged him as well as his family "very French though they seem to be Russian" (T560). The photograph of Roulin, taken a few months before his death (1903) (7), is an extraordinary confirmation of the painter's impression. Roulin -- who had to go back to work as an auxiliary guard in the office in Marseilles-Colbert, contemplated Tolstoi towards the end of his life, when the writer was trying to no longer distinguish himself from the Moujiks [Russian peasants]. When one compares the portrait of "baby Roulin" and the photograph, how not to be struck -- as I was at the time of our first meeting -- by the resemblance between Mrs. Marcelle Roulin and her portrait as a baby. Henri Perruchot reported that the faces of Dr. Rey and Miss Ravoux, shown while growing old, are little by little emphasizing the features painted by Van Gogh.
The number of paintings which made Vincent of the Roulin's family is rather difficult to estimate. J.-B. de la Faille (8), speaks about:
6 portraits of the postman Roulin;
1 portrait of Roulin's mother;
1 portrait of Roulin's wife with baby;
2 portraits of Camille Roulin (son);
3 portraits of the baby of the postman.
There are obviously huge errors in this inventory.
In various expositions, the Parisians could see, since 1947, the portraits of Joseph Roulin; his wife; Armand, his elder son; of Camille, timid fellow under his beret; and of the baby Marcelle (9).
Vincent painted at least five canvases of Mrs. Augustine Roulin, whose portraits are known under the name of "La Berceuse". On this subject, her daughter assured me that her mother held in her hands, in the painting, the cord which allowed her to balance the walnut provençal cradle in which she slept. The expression of Mrs. Roulin is apprehensive; she did not dare to look in the face of the friend of her husband. "He frightened me" she often confessed to her daughter. Vincent found her uneasy after Roulin left for Marseilles: "I am in the middle of a portrait of Roulin's wife on which I was working before getting sick". (T573)
"I painted reds going to pink going to orange, which changed to yellows, then lemon with clear, dark greens. If I could finish that, that would give me great pleasure, but I fear that she will not want to pose any more, because of her husband's absence." (T573).
Indeed, Roulin had agreed to leave for Marseilles for a promotion that is difficult to specify, in the service of itinerants maybe? His good-byes to his family pained the heart of Van Gogh who was also saddened to leave a friend. "Yesterday Roulin left . . . It was touching to see him with his children this last day especially with the small one when he made her laugh and jump on his knees and sang for her." (T573)
"His voice had a strange, pure and moving timbre which was at the same time for my ear a soft and sorry nurse's song and like a far-off clarion call of Revolutionary France. He was not sad, on the contrary, he had put his new uniform that he had received the very same day and everyone celebrated him." (T573)
In spite of lively visits by Roulin to Arles, Vincent was feeling, more and more, loneliness -- in which lurks madness -- weighing down on him. After the year at asylum of Saint-Rémy, he went to Auvers-on-Oise and in the field of wheat where the crows caw, the revolver's shot killed him.
It is with a just pride that Mrs. Marcelle Roulin evokes the feeling which linked Van Gogh with her father. This exemplary friendship, which of us would have been able to offer it to Vincent?
I must say that Mrs. Roulin hardly appreciates certain radio broadcasts or books (except for the poignant biography by Henri Perruchot) that depict her father as an alcoholic. Admittedly the word of Van Gogh himself when he met Joseph Roulin. Her daughter states: "I never saw my father drunk". And I believe her readily. Without doubt, the extremely robust nature of Roulin and his demanding profession enabled him to drink more than seemed normal for Van Gogh. Moreover, Vincent quickly recognized his qualities as an honest father to his family, a charitable and good man. A man who was not afraid to help "the poor lunatic" get out of the hospital (10), or who looked after the workshop which was precipitously abandoned by Gauguin. He would be a good friend.
The portraits of Roulin where we can see a reflection of his kindness, are deservedly honoured and will forever bear witness to the genius who created them: Vincent van Gogh.
1. La Vie de Van Gogh, by Henri Perruchot (Hatchet).
2. The extracts of Van Gogh's letters to Theo included in this article come either from the Bernard Grasset edition (1937), or from the Gallimard edition (1954).
3. Roughly 79,000 francs today .
4. The 135 francs of Roulin represent roughly 24,000 1955 francs. However, taking account of several corrective measures (variations in certain prices xxx different needs), one can estimate Roulin's resources at about thirty thousand 1955 francs.
Today, a "brigadier-chargeur" at the average level of his rank (index 220) would make, in Arles, 36,924 francs. For three dependent children 20,825 francs of family allowance and 4,487 francs of family supplement would be added. Van Gogh estimated that "while spending 5 to 6 francs per day, one does not have very much" (T520).
5. The Roulins were to have a fourth child: Cornélie who, born in 1897 and sickly, died in 1906.
6. "I adored to cut his beard. The old legend according to which the man loses his strength along with his hair must contain a grain of truth". Mabel Dodge Luhan: My life with D.H. Lawrence.
7. Roulin suffered from gallstones.
8. Van Gogh, by J.-B. de la Faille (Hyperion Edition)
9. Here the civil status of the Roulin family:
Joseph Étienne Roulin, born in Lambesc on April 4, 1841, died in Marseilles at the end of September 1903 (no marginal mention in the register). Married on August 31, 1868 to Augustine Alex Pellicot, born in Lambesc on October 9, 1851, died April 5, 1930.
Armand Joseph Désiré Roulin, born in Lambesc the May 5, 1871, died on November 24, 1945 -- he was an apprentice blacksmith in Lambesc before becoming a peace officer in Tunisia.
Camille Roulin born in Lambesc on July 10, 1877, and died as a result of the war on June 4, 1922 -- he traveled in the service of the maritime mails.
10. Read in "Arts", n 510 of April 6, 1955, the very interesting study of Daniel Wildenstein, "Van Gogh was not insane".
(A) Numbers of Letters from Vincent to Theo (added by Enrique Pareja. June 1999).
(B) Letter B14 was sent by Vincent to F. Bernard (E. Pareja. June 1999)
J.-N. Priou: Revue des PTT de France, 2 May-June, 1955)
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