A Newborn Baby: The Infinite in its Eyes

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Marcelle Roulin, 1888. Oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Marcelle Roulin, 1888. Oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

 

Every time I enter Van Gogh: Repetitions, I have to stop and explore the portraits of Marcelle Roulin on view. Maybe it’s because I have a baby at home. Maybe it’s because I’m in awe of how Marcelle Roulin tolerates the gold bracelet on her wrist and the ring on her tiny finger (I know my daughter wouldn’t). I might just want to squeeze those chubby cheeks. In any case, I’m fascinated by van Gogh’s  portraits of a baby who is so new to life.

Van Gogh had a enduring affection for children. When he met Marcelle’s mother, Augustine Roulin, she was pregnant. She gave birth to Marcelle on July 31, 1888. Soon after van Gogh wrote  a letter to his brother Theo saying, a baby “has the infinite in its eyes;” in the same letter he shared his intention to paint Marcelle. The artist created 3 individual portraits of Marcelle and two paintings of the baby in her mother’s arms.

The artist wasn’t the only one smitten with baby Marcelle. The following May, Marcelle’s father, Joseph Roulin wrote a letter to van Gogh saying, “Beautiful Marcelle is still doing well, she has two teeth, she is an extraordinary little one, very well-behaved, she has everything in her favour, only when I arrived she didn’t want to see me. It was only when I left that she really looked at me and pulled my beard a little.”

Van Gogh’s Autumn Colors

Vincent van Gogh, The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on fabric, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1947

Vincent van Gogh, The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on fabric, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1947

During his stay at the mental institution in Saint- Rémy, van Gogh painted a few autumn studies amid the changing colors. In a letter to his brother Theo, he described his progress: “The last study I did is a view of the village – where people were at work – under enormous plane trees – repairing the pavements. So there are piles of sand, stones and the gigantic tree-trunks – the yellowing foliage, and here and there glimpses of a house-front and little figures.”

The bright leaves inspired him so much that he quickly captured the moment on a piece of cloth, resulting in The Large Plane Trees.

How would the leaves on the trees look different if he had waited a few more weeks to paint this picture? How would the colors be different? How might the composition look different? Would the mood have changed?

A Van Gogh Inspired Triptych

Vincent van Gogh, Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 28 5/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of John T. Spaulding

Vincent van Gogh, Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 28 5/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of John T. Spaulding

While living in Arles, van Gogh became close friends with his neighbors, the Roulin family. He painted Madame Augustine Roulin on several occasions and made five repetitions of La Berceuse, an example of which can be seen above.

The title La Berceuse can translate as: lullaby, woman who rocks a cradle, or cradle that rocks. All of the La Berceuse paintings show Madame Roulin holding the rope that she used to rock her baby’s cradle.

Van Gogh intended La Berceuse to be part of a triptych, an art work composed of three parts. He planned to hang it in between two of his paintings of sunflowers.

Imagine that you were creating your own triptych with La Berceuse at the center. What would you hang on either side? Graduate Intern Caitlin Brague made the example below to help inspire you. Proud of your work? Share your drawing on Instagram, tagging @phillipscollection.

A triptych inspired by La Berceuse by Caitlin Brague.

A triptych inspired by La Berceuse by Caitlin Brague.