He wrote to his brother Theo on December 4, 1888:
“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.”
While Postes is emblazoned across the front of his hat, Roulin did not deliver the mail. Instead, he worked at the railway station as a brigadier-chargeur, a lofty title that meant he unloaded the mail bags from the trains and sorted the post for others to deliver.
Van Gogh loved painting Roulin, from his snappy blue uniform with the gold braid and brass buttons to his parted beard and dignified calm. In total, Van Gogh painted or sketched 25 portraits of Joseph, his wife Augustine, their sons Armand and Camille, and four-month-old baby daughter Marcelle. I saw his pen and ink sketch of Joseph at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Many citizens of Arles shunned Van Gogh and called him the crazy redhead (Fou-Roux), but the Roulin family was always kind and supportive. They remained in touch with Van Gogh until his death in 1890 at age 37.
The youngest of the Roulin models, Marcelle, lived until 1980, long enough to see Van Gogh lauded as one of the world’s most famous artists. While she did not remember meeting him as an infant, she did recall the six paintings he gave the family, which hung for a few years in her parents’ bedroom — five portraits and a still life of a vase of oleanders. Unfortunately for the Roulin family fortune, her father sold the collection in 1895 to art dealer Ambroise Vollard for 450 francs.
A few years after Marcelle died, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought one of Van Gogh’s portraits of her father for $58 million AND some other pieces in exchange.
Check out all of the Roulin family paintings on this website, which also lists the museums that house them.