Madame Roulin and Her Baby by Vincent Van GoghThesis

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When Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted in Arles, France, he befriended the Roulins. Joseph Roulin was a postal worker, and his wife was named Augustine. They had three children, the youngest of which was Marcelle, who was born in July of 1888. In November and December of 1888, four months after Marcelle was born, Van Gogh painted a series of portraits depicting Augustine and her youngest infant. Van Gogh had already painted several family portraits of the Roulins, but the series depicting Madame Roulin and her baby prove to be particularly revealing of the artist's own psyche. "Mother Roulin with Her Baby," which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is possibly the most potent and complex of the series. In this painting, the mother assumes a visibly self-abnegating pose as she holds up her baby. While the pose is clearly designed to feature baby Marcelle, and not necessarily to obliterate the image of the mother, Van Gogh admitted to have been projecting a bit of his own feelings toward his mother and to motherhood in general. Furthermore, Van Gogh was particularly interested in portraits of middle class people and families, which reminded him of his own background. "Mother Roulin with Her Baby" epitomizes the artist's semi-autobiographical portrait style, in which Van Gogh's characteristic use of vivid colors and energetic brush strokes converge.

An emotionally and psychologically powerful painting, "Mother Roulin with Her Baby" represents Van Gogh's lifelong interest in depicting working or middle class life as opposed to the lives of the bourgeois. Van Gogh had long been inspired by the painter Millit, who likewise loved depicting peasants (Lubin). The "coarse" and even "ugly" renditions of poor or working class people also "reflected his view of himself as coarse, ugly, and prematurely aged," (Lubin 66). Madame Roulin's hands in this painting are gnarled, as if she works in the fields or bears heavy burdens in her life. Van Gogh also happened to be "attracted to women bearing burdens," perhaps because bearing burdens mirrored his own suffering and made him feel less alone in the world (Lubin 88). As a result, most of the women depicted in Vincent's work are "marked by sadness and tragedy" through depictions like that in "Mother Roulin with Her Baby," (Lubin 87). The "cares and sorrows of a fruitless existence" had beaten themselves upon Mother Roulin (Lubin 87). Yet Van Gogh admitted to not rendering his portrait subjects in literal fashions, which is why he takes considerable liberties with style and color. It was not that Madame Roulin suffered from post-partum depression, but that she symbolized some of the eternal features of motherhood. For instance, she "reminded him of suffering saints and holy women," (Lubin 88).

More importantly, Madame Roulin reminded Van Gogh of his own mother and his relationship with her. The reason why Van Gogh painted with a "sudden burst of activity" after baby Marcelle was born might have been because he saw a bit of himself in the new baby," (Hulsker 570). Vincent perceived himself as being a burden his "depressed mother was forced to tolerate," (Lubin 88). Deprived of her love due to his mother's depression, Van Gogh went through his life longing for maternal care. This "unsatisfied craving for maternal care continued to make him feel like a burden for the rest of his life," (Lubin 88). Feeling like a burden led Van Gogh to fear intimacy. "Perhaps Vincent's fear of closeness made it difficult for him to portray tender relationships between people, even though he wished to do so," which is part of the reason why "Mother Roulin with Her Baby" lacks the tenderness of maternal affection (Lubin 6). Some critics perceive the emotional distance between mother and baby as a "flaw" in his work (Lubin 6). Others have claimed that "Mother Roulin with Her Baby" had been painted "hastily or even left unfinished," (Hulsker 570). Other portraits of Madame Roulin depict her face more clearly. "Mother Roulin with Her Baby" features the baby more than the mother, which seems to imply that there may be more than a little autobiographical content contained on the canvas.

In his letters to Theo, Vincent writes directly about their parents, proving the direct and conscious connection between the Roulin portraits and their childhood. Van Gogh writes, "I shall never forget Mother at Father's death…it made me begin to love dear old Mother more than before…as a married couple our parents were exemplary, like Roulin and his wife," (cited by Winer 166). Therefore, a mother holding up a baby to pose for a portrait was a known "traditional pose," and might not at all have been an attempt to depict an emotionally or physically unaffectionate mother (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In fact, the image of Madame Roulin holding up her baby is an act of deference and selflessness. She bows her head to the infant, who she holds high, as if to show that her baby is more important than she is, and that she devotes her life to her baby. Van Gogh admitted to Theo that he loved their mother more after feeling compassionate toward her suffering, and that love is projected onto the portrait of Mother Roulin.

Leaving Madame Roulin in an "unfinished" appearance and rendering her in the background and off to the extreme side of the canvas, Van Gogh may be revealing his ambivalent feelings toward his own mother. Madame Roulin was certainly used as a "stand-in for Vincent's mother," given Van Gogh's open admissions to Theo about how the Roulins reminded the artist of his parents. In fact, Mr. Roulin had been transferred to work in Marseilles and had to leave behind his family "just as Vincent's father had taken leave in death and left his mother behind," (Winer 165). Furthermore, Vincent's mother was known for being "affectively distant, and, in so many ways, unempathetic," (Winer 165). Depicting Madame Roulin physically distant from her baby makes her look "affectively distant" as well as unfeeling, as if she finds the baby distasteful or burdensome. She is rendered in profile, with only half of her face showing. This may also imply that there is another side to the mother, perhaps a dark side.

Moreover, Van Gogh discusses with Theo the conscious choice to use the color yellow in the background to provide a modern version of the classical halo. Yellow happened to be Van Gogh's favorite color, and he stated that using it as a background "creates a warm glow…like an enormous halo," (Philadelphia Museum of Art 1). Indeed Vincent wrote to Theo about wanting to paint portraits "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 the coloring," (1). In "Mother Roulin with Her Baby," Van Gogh fulfills his desire to depict the halo of hope that served as a sort of spiritual redemption for both his mother and for himself. The contrast between the sorrow of the mother and her redemption in the halo is represented by the contrasting colors on the canvas. Just as Van Gogh was not trying to be literal in his representation of the Roulin family, he was also not attempting realism in his work. Van Gogh's use of color was an expressionistic technique. Color symbolized intensity of emotion and contrast. Van Gogh wrote, "instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color... To express myself more forcibly," (cited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art 2). Yellow, green, white, and orange are the colors most dominant in the composition of "Mother Roulin and Her Baby." Other paintings in the Marcelle series include even deeper and more intense color contrasts, like between yellow and dark blue. Van Gogh developed an ongoing interest in complementary color schemes and was enamored with the potency of juxtaposition (Art Institute of Chicago). Only a few colors are used, but those colors are chosen wisely, deliberately, and with close attention to the overall effect they have rather than to how to render the images realistically.

The limited amount of colors used in "Mother Roulin and Her Baby" testifies to Van Gogh's commitment to the simple messages embedded in the subject matter. The baby is front and center, clothed in bright white. Like the yellow background, the baby's swaddling clothes represent brightness, light, and spiritual power. The baby's bonnet emphasizes the halo imagery. The mother's eyebrows, eyes, nose, and lips are all in line with that of her baby's. Located on the same horizontal plane, the features of mother and baby are paired and paralleled to show their deep and intimate spiritual connection. Whereas the baby faces the viewer head-on with deep and penetrating eyes, the opposite is true of the mother. Only the mother's profile is showing, and her features are softer and lack the more definitive black lines that make the baby stand out. The mother's work-weary hands are her most striking… [END OF PREVIEW]

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