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La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851–1930), 1889
|Artist||Van Gogh, Vincent Willem||
Vincent van Gogh painted five images of Mme Roulin as “La Berceuse,” the woman seated before a brilliant, floral wallpaper, holding the rope by which she rocks the cradle of her newborn daughter. They bridge in time the terrible breakdown of December 23, 1888, when Vincent, seemingly enraged by Gauguin to the point of complete madness, mutilated his left ear and retreated to his room in the “yellow house” in Arles to die. They stand, together with the series of vertical sunflowers with which this image is so intimately connected, among his grandest and most powerful achievements. His intention was to go well beyond the conventions of contemporary portraiture and the symbolically associative figural images painted by his friends Emile Bernard and Gauguin. “La Berceuse: that gigantic and inspired image like a popular print” was what Albert Aurier, the first critic to take serious note of Van Gogh (and his only substantial commentator during his brief lifetime), called it.
Augustine-Alix-Pellicot Roulin (1851-1930) was thirty-seven years old when she met Van Gogh through her husband Joseph, the post-master at the railroad station in Arles near Vincent’s house. As so poignantly evidenced in the frequent letters that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in Paris, Joseph Roulin, a hard-drinking, outspoken republican, was the one person with whom Vincent struck up a substantial friendship during his fifteen-month stay in the provincial city. Starting in the fall of 1888, Vincent painted numerous portraits of the postman and all the members of his family. He also incorporated the couple into two of his imaginary, multifigured compositions. Roulin’ tall, spare figure, in appearance more Russian than French, as Vincent noted, held great appeal; the seeming peace of his marriage, exemplary in the manner of his own parents, provided a kind of solace for Vincent that was hard sought in his isolation, both physical and psychological. The family also provided ready models for him and Gauguin in a city where sitters were difficult to find and rarely sympathetic once they began to pose for him; he lamented, “I despair of ever finding models.”
Much has been written about the relationship between Van Gogh and this woman. By her own confession she was frightened to pose for him, particularly after her husband was transferred to Marseille on January 22, 1889. His departure came as a great blow to Vincent, who by then depended heavily upon his companionship. However, there is no weariness apparent in any of the portraits he made of her and her children, and it has often been overlooked that it was Augustine Roulin who was the first to visit Vincent in the hospital on Christmas day of 1888, after his savage breakdown. She continued to pose for him during the period of his convalescence when his head was wrapped in bandages, although the neighbours around the place Lamartine petitioned to have Vincent confined following his breakdown. For him she became a kind of Great Mother, her heavy figure and still features embodying for him the solace of calm hope.
His thoughts on Mme Roulin, or rather the allegorical portrait he would do of her as “La Berceuse’—a phrase to be translated as either the lullaby or the rocker, in reference to the unseen cradle that she rocks—can be followed through his correspondence with Theo. The work's first overriding evocation is that of a spiritual image that would bring a lulling calm to those in distress, and in a letter probably written on January 28, 1888, he related the idea he had “to paint a picture in such a way that sailors, who are at once children and martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of their Icelandic fishing boat, would feel the old sense of being rocked come over them and remember their own lullabies." Despite the somewhat incoherent passage in which this idea is introduced (a rare incidence, in fact, since Vincent's letters are remarkably clear-headed and self-analytical, even when he was at his most endangered), it makes direct reference to the novel Pécheur d'Islande by Pierre Loti, which he had recently read and discussed with Gauguin. The text deals with the dreadfully lonely and despairing life of Breton sailors in the waters off Iceland, and Vincent was deeply impressed that Gauguin had himself been a sailor although his claim to having been to Iceland seems to fall within one of Gauguin’s many self-aggrandizing exaggerations. The idea of making “La Berceuse” into a votive image like a popular chromolithograph, to which Van Gogh so often referred in connection with it, remained with him. Ina letter to Theo attributed to May 5, 1889, he proposed that if one arranged “La Berceuse” in the middle and the two canvases of sunflowers to the right and left, “it makes a sort of triptych ...a sort of decoration, for instance for the end of a ship’ cabin’. Immediately, however, he added a stylistic note—"Then, as the size increases, the concise composition is justified”—which reveals that his concern with the arrangement was as much formal as it was expressive. At another point he gave an expanded idea of the possible relationship between “La Berceuse” and the series of sunflowers: “I picture to myself these same canvases [replicas of “La Berceuse”] between those of the sunflowers, which would thus form torches or candelabra beside them, the same size, and so the whole would be composed of seven or nine canvases”. The idea of series had already emerged before in the repetitions of the sunflowers he made to decorate the room of the yellow house in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit. His introduction of a painting of Mme Roulin into a serial conception is certainly based on his carefully considered interplay of a palette of ocher and sharp green, although the association of her image, flanked by two vases of flowers, like a Madonna on an altar between floral offerings, is justly inevitable, particularly given what is known of the potency of both images for Van Gogh.
The first mentions of “La Berceuse,” in two letters to Theo and one to the Dutch painter Arnold Hendrik Koning, date from January 1889. To Theo he wrote: ‘Lam working on the portrait of Roulin’s wife, which I was working on before I was ill" and “I think I have already told you that besides these [replicas of sunflowers] I have a canvas of ‘La Berceuse’ the very one I was working on when my illness interrupted me. I now have two copies of this one too”. In the letter to Koning acknowledging his New Year's greetings, he informed his friend: “At present I have in mind, or rather on my easel, the portrait of a woman. I call it ‘La Berceuse; or as we say in Dutch (after Van Eeden, you know, who wrote that particular book I gave you to read), or in Van Eeden’s Dutch, quite simply ‘our lullaby or the woman rocking the cradle? It is a woman I na green dress (the bust olive green and the skirt pale malachite green). The hair is quite orange and in plaits. The complexion is chrome yellow, worked up with some naturally broken tones for the purpose of modelling. The hands holding the rope of the cradle, the same. At the bottom the background is vermilion (simply representing a tiled floor or else a stone floor). The wall is covered with wallpaper, which of course I have calculated in conformity with the rest of the colours. This wall-paper is bluish-green with pink dahlias spotted with orange and ultramarine....Whether I really sang a lullaby in colours is something I leave to the critics."
The emotional letters to Theo about the image contrast sharply with the careful, stylistic description given to Koning, and show the dichotomy between mind and feelings that this image held for Van Gogh. The bias to see in the paintings products of an inspired madness is here more strongly refuted than in any other of his most “loaded” images; the equilibrium of a formal composition, a stylistic intention, and a narrative expression are brought into perfect accord.
The five versions of “La Berceuse” mentioned in the letters survive,” and this one was the canvas chosen by Mme Roulin for her own out of those that had been done up to that time—an intelligent choice, according to Vincent’ appraisal: “She had a good eye and took the best." (The painting did not remain with the family long, for it was sold in 1895, along with four other Van Gogh portraits of members of the family, to the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard.)
Because of its documented early history, this painting has always been considered as possibly the first, or primary, version of “La Berceuse” (as an alternative to that in Otterlo), which was begun before Vincent's collapse in December, probably in the company of Gauguin, who also painted a portrait of Mme Roulin seated in a similar chair at that time. However, the primacy of neither version can be established with certainty. Both have the date 1889 on the arm of the chair, but the placement of the hands is unique in this version, while the wallpaper in the Otterlo painting is more robust and animated than in any of the others. As early as January 28, Vincent reported to Theo in a letter that he was making copies of the painting destined for the Roulin family, a document that strongly supports its pre-eminence in the series. This picture must have served as the model for the other three paintings, which, with one exception, follow it in fairly precise detail, including the wallpaper design. Mark Roskill has pointed out that the secondary motif of the wallpaper, not the flowers themselves but the paisley like orange curves within red dots on a green field, recurs in the background of the portrait of Dr. Félix Rey (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), the physician who so sympathetically saw Van Gogh through the December—January crisis and whose portrait he referred to in the letters written in late January. However, this same motif occurs as well in the Otterlo version and seems simply to have been much on Van Gogh's mind before and after Christmas. The strongest argument in favour of the Annenberg painting as the first is its one major difference from the other four, namely, the position of the woman's hands, which here cross right over left, just the reverse of the others. What has been overlooked is that by doing so, Mme Roulin covers her wedding band in the early version, while the ring is prominently shown in the others. The significance of this detail—as profound as the distinction may be—is obscure. Her dual role as mother and wife is interlocked throughout Van Gogh’s discussions of the subject. It might be proposed that he painted her first in the pose that came most naturally (right hand over left) and then realized that by shifting her hands in the four subsequent versions of the picture, he could reveal her ring and pay tribute to her role as wife, in a marriage that he so much admired, while the cradle rope emphasizes her role as mother.
On quite another level—and certainly a subjective one—there are in this picture a power and a deliberateness of both characterization and monumental realization absent from the other four. The absolute set of the head, the deliberateness of the gaze, and the completely assured execution of the deep blue outline of bodice and chair place it somewhat apart from the others, although it must be emphasized that repetition of images within a series did not necessarily entail a diminishment of energy and strength of execution.
Should this in fact be the first version, whose execution would then have been interrupted by his illness, one might expect to find physical evidence, and there is some indication of a distinct time lapse within certain sections, The area of the green skirt that & tends beyond the arm of the chair, for example, is worked in quite a different manner from the rest of the skirt. The rope that passes through her hand lacks the directional tautness that occurs in the other versions and may be reworked in the left part, modelled over a salmon base with strokes of yellow, lavender, and a little green, the whole braided together by the red outline, whereas the right section is painted directly on the green of the skirt with no base colour.
In the end, whatever relationship this picture has to the other: they, individually and as a series, all have a nobility consistent with Van Gogh's ambitions: “Perhaps there’s an attempt to get all the music of the colour here into ‘La Berceuse.” As he confided to Theo, he wished that this image—bluntly executed in harsh and defiant outlines in radiant colour—would have an immediacy and popular appeal that would recall his earlier populist and socially conscious works. Few pictures concerned him as much in his letters as this, and perhaps more is known from the correspondence about his expressive intention here than in any other work. He was apprehensive at times about it: “But as I have told you already, this canvas may be unintelligible”. Yet he also seemed to have realized the magnitude of his success: “I know very well that it is neither drawn nor painted as correctly as a Bouguereau, and I rather regret this, because I have an earnest desire to be correct. But though it is doomed, alas, to be neither a Cabanel nor a Bouguereau, yet I hope that it will be French.”
|Institution||The Metropolitan Museum of Art|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||92.7 x 73.7 cm|