Sample Essay

The Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle is part of a series of paintings called The Roulin Family, painted by Van Gogh in the years 1888-1889 in Arles at his friend Joseph Roulin’s residence. This painting, in particular, is made in oil and is currently located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In the opening days of December 1888 Vincent wrote to his brother Theo:

I have made portraits of a whole family, that of the postman whose head I had done previously – the man, his wife, the baby, the young boy, and the son of sixteen, all of them real characters and very French, though they look like Russians. Size 15 canvases. You know how I feel about this, how I feel in my element, and that it consoles me up to a certain point for not being a doctor. I hope to get on with this and to be able to get more careful posing, paid for by portraits. And if I manage to do this whole family better still, at least I shall have done something to my liking and something individual. Just now I am completely swamped with studies, studies, studies, and this will go on for quite a while – it makes such a mess that it breaks my heart, and yet it will provide me with some property when I’m forty. (Van Gogh 560)
Van Gogh was very particular about his work and the fact that it reflected the preliminary vision of the person he had in mind, and so, in order to translate that inherent perspective onto the canvas, he kept redoing the paintings until they were synergistic to the mental image he had in mind. He produced several pictures of the whole family, including the rotund matriarch Madame Roulin, whose many different versions and postures signify Van Gogh’s struggle to improvise.

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