Vincent Van Gogh La Berceuse, Portrait of Madame Roulin
Vincent Van Gogh, if not one of the most controversial and celebrated artists of the past two centuries, is certainly the artist most credited with influencing 20th century art through his mastery of vivid, emotional colors. Van Gogh, a Dutch post-impressionist, was experiencing one of the most turbulent times of his life when he painted La Berceuse. Beset by loneliness and impotence, Van Gogh sent a desperate plea for Paul Gauguin (a leading French Post-Impressionist artist) to stay with him.
Case Study: Augustine Roulin (1851-1930) was one of the few people Van Gogh could call friend in Arles. Van Gogh captured the warmth of her face in his painting of a local dance making it the only recognizable image in a crowd of otherwise dehumanized figures. Joseph Roulin, a postman, was also portrayed in Van Gogh's painting with a rebellious, pronged beard in his blue postal uniform. According to Van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Roulin was a working-class radical whom he admired. Joseph Roulin, his wife Augustine and their children became the vigorous image in his mind of the warmth that families should possess. As a result, he painted all of them several times, from the eldest son, Armand, to the baby Marcelle.
Standout Features: Van Gogh paints a portrait that appears to rock gracefully as it moves in the direction of the viewer. A sense of calm and inclusion is the resulting feeling. You feel as if you are a part of the actual painting, loved and protected as the cradle is gently rocked with Roulin’s rope. One can almost imagine the sweet lullaby sung by the women who rocked the cradle. This lullaby inspired Van Gogh to sing a lullaby while delirious in the hospital. Van Gogh is able to create a pacifying effect through the use of complementary colors that swirl gracefully in contrast on the canvas. The green skirt is balanced by an illuminated red floor. Roulin’s face, a tapestry of gold interlaced with bronze, seems as if it is a living part or the decorative wallpaper that is set in red and green patters and offset by vivid white flowers.
All of these things are present, yet Van Gogh’s painting is anything but a lullaby that lures one to sleep. The eyes are forced to focus, and there is an emotional arousal that is nothing short of drama. A mother rocking a cradle is an everyday act of love and affection, yet Van Gogh manages to create an image of magic and ecstasy. Perhaps he set out not to paint a portrait, but to forge an image of an icon of religious art in the minds of the masses. Like himself, Van Gogh painted La Berceuse to celebrate those with broken hearts. Writing to Gauguin and his brother Theo, he felt it would serve as a beacon of hope to the poor, or a homing light for fishermen far out at sea weathering a severe storm; their fears soothed if they could but imagine the fierce rocking of the boat to be a cradle lost in the memories of their own childhood.
Further Inspirations and Influences: Both Van Gogh and Gauguin painted Roulin in the Arles studio. The rounded face of Roulin, in his more imagined painting at a later date, was inspired by the genius of his friend Gauguin.
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