In December 1888, shortly before suffering the breakdown that precipitated Paul Gauguin’s departure from Arles, Vincent van Gogh began a portrait of Madame Roulin, the wife of a "Socratic" local postman—the artist’s own characterization—with whom he had become friends. Van Gogh completed the first of an eventual five versions of the portrait in January 1889, during his recuperation (the Art Institute’s painting is the second in the series). His letters reveal that by then the work had acquired multiple connotations for him. He told one correspondent that he had named it La Berceuse, which means both "lullaby" and "woman rocking a cradle," wondering playfully whether the color did not sing a lullaby of its own. He suggested to Gauguin that its visual music would comfort lonely Icelandic fishermen at sea, and noted how wonderful it would be "to achieve in painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has already done." And he advised his brother Theo to place it between two of his sunflower paintings to form a kind of triptych, a "decoration" suitable "for the end wall of a ship’s cabin."
Analogies between color and music, common since the Romantic period, assumed a new importance in the late 1880s thanks to the Symbolists, who valued subjective expression, poetic association, and formalist ingenuity over mimetic literalism. Here, van Gogh merged divergent aesthetic currents. He began Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse) as a portrait rooted in the Realist tradition. But the extraordinary flowered wallpaper, whose forms teem with a vitalist energy, and the addition of a cradle rope—clearly an afterthought—transform the work into something richer and more allusive, an arresting paean to motherhood, the life force, and the mysterious power of color.
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