In “La Berceuse”, Van Gogh painted Augustine Roulin, the wife of the postmaster, as she rocks a cradle. I was affected by the abstraction, flatness creating a depth and space that was new to me. There was also the background — flowers within a galaxy of bright points – and the unexpected color. As I look at the gold of Mme. Roulin’s face now, I feel a sun shining into her soul and a depth in her eyes like the sky.
In Is Beauty a Making One of Opposites? Eli Siegel asks this about the opposites of depth and surface:
IS painting, like art itself, a presentation of the “on top,” obvious, immediate?—and is it also a presentation of what is implied, deep, “below”?—and is art, consequently, an interplay of surface and sensation as “this” and depth and thought as “all that”?
In “La Berceuse”’ Van Gogh is bringing out the possibilities of Augustine Roulin through what is around her – the wallpaper, her chair, the floor. In the wallpaper, he gives each flower an independent personality in a bold impasto. There is pleasure in the way he puts down the paint. There is strictness too, yet we feel these lively flowers have in them the tendency not to be composed but to be free. And did any chair before Van Gogh have this kind of spiraling motion, speed, and shifting perspective? These independent lives around Mme. Roulin add to her, bring out her personality. There is life also in the flat, intense red of the floor.
Diagonals start in the stems and flowers of the background and join the angles and sides of the picture frame, intensifying the drama of her crossed hands. She holds a cord that leads to the cradle. Though it is outside the frame of the painting, our thinking of the cradle makes her larger. There are several shy flowers that have her coloring, with turquoise circles like the irises of her eyes, gold circles like the eyelids, and curly red outlines like her crown of braids. The leaves are sharp, and point in many directions, darting about like a woman’s critical thoughts.
One of the most surprising things in Mme. Roulin’s portrait is her dark green blouse, which is right at the center of the painting. We look at our own garments and see texture, folds, shading, and imperceptible edges that go off into space. But Mme. Roulin’s blouse is absolutely flat. It is bounded with wonderful bold outlines that have nuance and adventures, and help the illusion of solid form. Her proportions, while we may accept them, are far from classical. She assumes the form of a pyramid. Van Gogh has distorted her figure to give it more depth. This is so different from distorting things, which can go on in us, for the purpose of lessening their meaning.
In relation to the powerful body, there is the delicacy of Augustine Roulin’s features. Could the brush strokes be by any other painter? And look at the relation of angle and curve. Van Gogh puts an arch in her eyebrows, introduces points into the curve of her nose and into her lips, sharpens her chin and the angles of her cheek. Look at the incisive strokes of red and gray radiating out from her forehead and the sharp angle at her forehead. As she quietly sits, with so much around her and within her, we feel Augustine Roulin is more herself. We have a sense of her thoughts in motion.
Van Gogh must have cared very much for this work, for he made copies of the original portrait, one for the sitter, one for himself, another for Gauguin, five in all. The version we see, one of the later versions, is the one Mme. Roulin chose to keep for herself. Vincent wrote to his brother Theo that “She had a good eye and took the best.” Augustine Roulin must have felt proud to be painted in this way, and liked the way Van Gogh saw her. Isn’t this a relation of “surface and sensation as this” and “depth and thought as all that”, that is beautiful, and something we all are hoping for?