Joy of Museums Virtual Tours

Virtual Tours of Museums, Art Galleries, and Historic Sites

“Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent van Gogh

“Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” by Vincent van Gogh is one of six paintings that van Gogh painted of his close friend, from the southern French town of Arles.

Joseph Roulin, the local postman, was one of his favorite sitters in Arles. Van Gogh wrote to his brother:

“I am now at work with another model, a postman in a blue uniform, trimmed with gold, a big bearded face, very like Socrates.”

Van Gogh painted several portraits of Joseph Roulin and Madame Roulin, as well as their children. The “Roulin Family” is a group of portrait paintings that Vincent van Gogh painted in Arles in 1888 and 1889. Van Gogh loved to paint portraits. However, it was difficult for financial reasons for him to find models. Fortunately, the entire family agreed to sit for Van Gogh over several sittings, and each was a delight for Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh - Portret van de postbode Joseph Roulin

Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In this painting, as most of his art, Van Gogh used his imagination, colors, and themes artistically and creatively to evoke desired emotions from the audience. Van Gogh and Joseph Roulin became good friends and drinking companions. Van Gogh compared Roulin to Socrates on many occasions. He found him Roulin be “such a good soul and so wise and so full of feeling and so trustful.”

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1889) van Gogh Kroller

Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889 at the Kröller-Müller Museum

Van Gogh said of his pictures:

“the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which makes me feel the infinite more than anything else.”

 “in a picture, I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”

Vincent van Gogh and Japanese Art

These portraits of the Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent van Gogh reflected his deep interest in Japanese prints. Van Gogh discovered Japanese Art in magazine illustrations of artwork created by woodblock prints using Japanese techniques that depicted Japanese life. In 1885, van Gogh started collecting “ukiyo-e” prints that he bought in small Parisian shops.

Van Gogh shared these prints with his contemporaries and organized a Japanese print exhibition in Paris in 1887. One version of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Pere Tanguy (1887) featured a backdrop of Japanese prints. Japanese woodblock prints inspired him, and in his works, he reflected the vibrancy of color and light that he observed in Japanese woodblock prints.

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Willem van Gogh is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western Art. Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime and was considered a madman and a failure. He created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. They were characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive, and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art.

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin

  • Title:                   Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin or “Joseph-Etienne Roulin”
  • Artist:                 Vincent van Gogh
  • Year:                   1889
  • Medium:            Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions       66.2 × 55 cm (26.1 × 21.7 in)
  • Museum:           The Barnes Foundation

Facts about Vincent van Gogh

  • Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands
  • Initially, van Gogh planned to be a pastor and worked as a lay preacher in Belgium. It was only on being let go from this job that he decided that his future lay in painting.
  • Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27 years old.
  • Van Gogh never received any formal art training.
  • Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, worked in an art gallery and introduced van Gogh to many artworks.
  • Van Gogh visited many parts of Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and England.
  • Japanese woodblock prints profoundly influenced Van Gogh. He collected pictures of Japanese woodblock prints, and he practiced making copies.
  • Van Gogh had several close relationships with many fellow artists, including Paul Gaugin and Emile Bernard.
  • Van Gogh’s artistic career was only ten years.
  • Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, especially to his brother.
  • He created over 900 paintings plus many more drawings and sketches.
  • He died at the age of 37
  • As a poor artist, van Gogh didn’t have money to pay for models, so he painted himself instead. He created hundreds of self-portraits.
  • Van Gogh considered himself and many of his paintings to be failures.
  • Van Gogh cut off his ear in 1888.
  • Experts believe that that Gaugin cut off Van Gogh’s ear, following a violent dispute. However, they both conspired to blame it on van Gogh so that Gaugin would not be jailed.
  • Van Gogh wrapped up his removed ear and gave it to a prostitute in a nearby brothel.
  • Van Gogh suffered mental health challenges for many years, and in 1889 he voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy.
  • Van Gogh spent a year in the hospital, from which he created some of his most well-known paintings.
  • Van Gogh spent his adult life in poverty, surviving on cheap food. His diet consisted mainly of bread and coffee; he drank alcohol excessively and always had his pipe in hand.
  • After leaving the asylum, Van Gogh’s mental health continued to deteriorate, and in 1890, he shot himself in the chest. He died two days later.
  • There is speculation that Van Gogh did not shoot himself but that he was shot in a prank that went wrong. Van Gogh protected the identity of who shot him, by claiming that he shot himself.
  • Only 37 years old when he died, he had just sold one painting in his lifetime.
  • On his deathbed, van Gogh’s last words to his brother were, “the sadness will last forever.”
  • Van Gogh’s brother died very soon after Van Gogh’s death.


  • Does Vincent van Gogh’s deep interest in Japanese prints shine through in these joyful portraits?

Vincent van Gogh


“The best way to know God is to love many things.”
– Vincent van Gogh


Photo Credit: 1) Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Popular this Week

Museums, Art Galleries & Historical Sites - Virtual Tours
Ancient Artifacts - Virtual Tour
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC - Virtual Tour
Philadelphia Museum of Art - Virtual Tour 
"Alexander Hamilton" by John Trumbull
"Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci
National Gallery of Art, DC - Virtual Tour
The Colossus of Constantine
"Samson and Delilah" by Peter Paul Rubens
"Gassed" by John Singer Sargent