With her somber, distant gaze, the working-class French mother painted by Vincent van Gogh appears to reveal little about herself or the painter. But more than a century later, UCLA professor of history and art history Debora Silverman has found new meaning in the portrait.
In "La Berceuse" – which translates as "lullaby" or "woman rocking a cradle" – Silverman sees a poignant tale with holiday overtones and telling clues to van Gogh's life and art.
"It's ironic because the woman's husband, Joseph Roulin, is more familiar to fans of van Gogh because the artist painted him so often," says Silverman. "But Augustine Roulin really holds an important key to understanding the artist's work."
Silverman discovered numerous religious influences – many of them Nativity-themed – behind the portraits of Augustine Roulin. (Van Gogh made five versions of the portrait between December 1888 and March 1889.) The influences include a 15th-century Flemish triptych featuring the Madonna, Provencal folk religious paintings, the region's tradition of special Christmas decorations featuring the Holy Family in miniature figurines, stained-glass windows in Antwerp and a Nativity play that van Gogh saw that winter.
In her new book, Van Gogh and Gauguin: A Search for Sacred Art (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Silverman contends that "La Berceuse" illustrates the rich and unexpected ways in which van Gogh assimilated aspects of the popular culture of the South of France.
The setting was Arles, a picturesque town in Provence, and Christmas was coming on. After a heated argument, Paul Gauguin stormed out of town, destroying van Gogh's dream of establishing an artist's community in Arles. Other aspects of van Gogh's personal life were crumbling, too. Joseph Roulin, an Arles postman who had befriended van Gogh, was being transferred out of the area. The artist's brother Theo was on the verge of marriage, planting a fear that van Gogh's chief source of financial and emotional support would stop (it didn't).
"'La Berceuse' absorbed van Gogh's experience of loss, rupture and change in his most significant personal relationships," Silverman says. "At the same time, the image represented a secular Madonna, and he hoped it would offer consolation and hope to others."