Interpretive Resource

Analysis: Van Gogh's Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse)

An in-depth look at the artist's intense portrait of Madame Roulin, the wife of van Gogh's friend, postman Joseph Roulin.

Van Gogh and Gauguin
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Student and Teacher Programs. Van Gogh and Gauguin, 2001, p. 18-20.

During his time in Arles, van Gogh painted a range of subjects from the harvesting of the fields to local nightlife. He also depicted his friends, in particular members of the Roulin family. In December of 1888, van Gogh began a portrait of Madame Roulin (born Augustine-Alix Pellicot), the wife of the artist’s close friend, postman Joseph Roulin. By March 1889 he had completed four additional versions. This version is probably the second in the series and was probably intended for Gauguin. In contrast to his rationale behind creating three versions of his bedroom, van Gogh painted five images of Madame Roulin as La Berceuse because he wanted to "ensure the availability of his best work to all who might want it."

Conceiving the painting as part of a triptych to send to Gauguin after they separated, van Gogh intended La Berceuse to be flanked by two paintings of sunflowers. In a May 1889 letter to Theo, Vincent sketched this arrangement, explaining "the yellow and orange tones of the head will gain in brilliance by the proximity of the yellow wings. And then you will understand what I wrote you, that my idea had been to make a sort of decoration…"

Van Gogh’s ongoing interest in complementary color schemes is evident in the juxtaposition of Madame Roulin’s bright, emerald-green skirt and dark, olive bodice in contrast to her orange hair, rust-colored chair, and vermilion floor. His pairing of red and green is enhanced by the lively floral wallpaper, derived from a self-portrait by Gauguin, which echoes the further variations on this complementary color scheme and adds blue and orange accents. The heavily patterned background also makes the solid planes of color that comprise the floor and Madame Roulin’s body appear to be flat. Van Gogh varies his brushstrokes throughout, from the curving linear strokes forming the figure’s contour and the wallpaper design to short directional hatchings that define her face, hair, and the flowers. The variable color and brushstroke keep the viewer’s eye actively moving around the composition.

Van Gogh painted the words "La Berceuse" on the arm of Madame Roulin’s chair. When describing the painting’s title van Gogh wrote, "I call it ‘La Berceuse’…or…quite simply ‘our lullaby or the woman rocking the cradle.’" Van Gogh’s use of the subtitle "La Berceuse" (a French word with multiple meanings including: a woman who rocks an infant; rocking chair; cradle that rocks; lullaby) is entirely appropriate, given the inclusion of a rope to rock the unseen cradle and Madame Roulin’s role as a mother of three children, including six-month-old Marcelle. Seated in a rustic armchair, Madame Roulin gazes off into the distance. Her hands overlap one another as they lightly grasp the coarse rope that rises from the bottom edge of the painting.

Van Gogh’s reference to the painting as "La Berceuse" goes beyond Madame Roulin’s literal action of rocking a cradle. Similar to many subjects he portrayed, such as The Poet’s Garden and Sunflowers, the image of a cradle being rocked also held strong symbolic value of nurture and support. Although the symbolism is intended to be universal it springs initially from the artist’s personal experience. Gauguin’s stories about his days sailing around the world from 1868 to 1870 as a "pilot’s apprentice" (officer’s candidate) in the merchant marines intrigued van Gogh. He was also inspired by Pierre Loti’s 1886 novel Icelandic Fishermen that tells the tale of long-haul fishermen and their homesick thoughts after spending lengthy periods of time away from home. Van Gogh felt that this consoling image of a mother would be perfectly suited for the fishermen’s sleeping quarters in which they would literally feel themselves inside the cradle she rocks, lulled to sleep by the swaying motion of the boat. La Berceuse, coupled with van Gogh’s "aim to make art that offers consolation for the brokenhearted," reveals an artist engaged in a cathartic process of creating an art that heals. Considering that van Gogh painted five versions of La Berceuse during a time when he needed to be soothed, this image must have offered him great comfort after Gauguin had deserted him.

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