“I should like to do portraits which will appear as revelations to people in a hundred years’ time.”
Vincent Van Gogh penned those words in 1890, more than a century ago, in a letter to his sister. This artist has indeed captured the souls of seekers of truth and beauty during our time, and, though he was not recognized during his lifetime, Van Gogh is without a doubt an artistic immortal.
What sets Van Gogh apart, mainly, is his intensity. He threw himself into the creation of his portraits with a furious mix of abandon and integrity akin to Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky in their most compelling passages. He referred to his portraits of the working folk as “impassioned expressions,” and indeed, they inspire a curious, almost tangible contagion of emotion in their audiences. We see their pain, feel their spirits, almost hear their hearts beating.
During his Arles period, Van Gogh concentrated on his goal of portraying the beauty and strength of the simple peasant and working man and woman. It was during this time of his life that he met the Roulin family he was to make famous.
“I have made portraits of a whole family,” he wrote, “…the postman… his wife, the baby, the little boy, and the son of sixteen, all characters…” In a town where the locals labeled Vincent “fou-rou,” (crazy redhead), only one family accepted him, the Roulins. In total, Van Gogh made 25 portraits of the Roulin family.
Of the Postman, Joseph Roulin, there are seven Van Gogh paintings, all with the characteristic postman’s hat; all but one portray face and shoulders only. Probably the most famous Roulin portrait, however, depicts the postman sitting on a chair with his left hand on a table. This stunning portrait was painted in early August of 1888, when Vincent, struggling with his own inner demons, took hold of the sheer rowdy brilliance of color itself and made it his own.
A glance at this portrait shows first, an explosion of the color blue. Next, the viewer will notice the strict and steadfast composition of the piece: the heavy vertical of the three-quarter form, framed by the almost perfect triangle of the two hands and the face. This triangle is repeated in the head itself, shaped by an unusual two-pointed beard that echoes the two hands, and topped by the postman’s hat.
The postman is portrayed in a frozen moment of time, but full of energy, all but buzzing with life. In the hands, face and even the brushstrokes of the blue uniform, the viewer senses a man conscious of being watched, somewhat ill at ease, but of great spirit and dignity. As with all Van Gogh’s portraits, the rendering is executed with an enormous but simple love of the subject.
This great artist, born of a preacher and drawn throughout his life to the clergy and to God, believed that all masterpieces, whether in literature, music, dance or art, lead the audience to God, and that such is the purpose of art. In his own words, “Really, there is nothing more artistic than love for humans.”