In the MFA’s “Impressionism and Beyond” gallery, portraits of a husband and wife hang alongside one another. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) painted Postman Joseph Roulin (1888) and Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking in a Cradle (La Berceuse) (1889) about a year apart, but as you look at these paintings, you can almost imagine the two sitting together in their kitchen. Maybe Augustine told Joseph about her day as she rocked their baby and made dinner, or maybe both of them simply rested after finishing a long day of work, worn, but content. Most days, when I pass by these two paintings, I can’t help but stop to say hello. I imagine they appreciate the company.
Van Gogh needs no introduction. Despite his struggles with mental illness and isolation, he loved people fiercely. He painted multiple portraits of the Roulin family, both individually and as a group. He particularly admired the working class of Europe, and many of his paintings highlight moments in their everyday lives. This is where my fondness for Van Gogh stems from. Lullaby, in his eyes, was a portrait of comfort. Specifically, Van Gogh imagined fishermen, with “their melancholy isolation, exposed to all the dangers, alone on the sad sea,” seeing the portrait and “experience[ing] a feeling of being rocked, reminding them of their own lullabies.”
In 1878, Van Gogh volunteered to minister in a coal mine in South Belgium, a position that won him little respect from the church that employed him (I’m sure they were particularly displeased by the nickname the workers gave him: “Christ of the Coal Mines”). He lived among these workers for around two years, during which time he began painting again after having stopped for a period. When he left the miners, he no longer wanted to become a minister, focusing instead on drawing and painting. What was it about his time with the coal mine workers that drew him back to artistry? What is it about such an environment that demanded creation? And, returning to the Roulins, what about the postman and his wife struck such a chord with Van Gogh that he returned to them time and time again, as a friend and an observer, painting both with such warmth?
That same warmth, or perhaps we should call it adoration, is visible in The Granddaughter (1885), a painting by Francis David Millet (1846–1912). Here we’re invited into the comfort of a family home with its inhabitants at ease. We can recognize the scene quickly: perhaps the granddaughter is ill, perhaps just resting, but either way, care shines from the grandfather’s presence. Almost all of us are familiar with the feeling of caring and, if we are very lucky, being cared for. For many of us, it may be so commonplace that there’s now little left to find remarkable about it. But in this scene, we can see the feeling rendered in its whole, unhindered by any bitter lens.
In a modern world rife with insincerity and callousness toward one another, it can be off-putting to observe works so entirely sincere, unobscured by the need for chauvinism or shock value. Millet would have had all the reason to paint something gruesome in place of this scene. After serving as a drummer boy in the Union Army, Millet eventually became an assistant to his father, a surgeon, during the Civil War. Considering medical practices of the time and the violence of the war, one might assume Millet’s art would be full of anger, but there is a kindness in his pieces, even when they are tinged with grief.
Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938) had an eye for capturing similar moments of humanity. In his work Girl Reading (1909), we get to glimpse a scene of contentment: a young woman painted in sturdy neutral colors, absorbed in a book, awash in the low (presumably) afternoon light. We can imagine her looking up, glancing at us from across the room, reading a paragraph she loves aloud. She is at ease with life in this space.
Though it has a heavier feeling about it, Tarbell’s New England Interior (1906) hands us another such moment of humanity. Two people, maybe sisters or friends, sit together. Concern mars the face of the woman on the right. Something about the way she leans toward the other woman reveals her worry to us. In contrast, the woman on the left is stoic, determined to continue what she’s doing. There is a truth in this moment that has grown stronger for me the older I get: the most central aspect of being human is being present for one another. It’s what has gotten us so far, and it’s what will assure our survival. This is the immense power of humanity—we can choose to be gentle with one another, even when the rest of the world is not. People are just people. They may do great things or terrible things, but they’re still just people surviving.
We are far simpler creatures than we like to admit. But mundanity and, by extension, humanity are not things to turn away from. The sweetest, most peaceful moments of my life have happened around kitchen tables, on beaches, in gardens. There is beauty and joy to be found in moments that allow us to be with one another. In a letter to his younger brother, Theo, in September of 1888, Van Gogh writes, “...and be sure that the more I think about it the more I feel that there’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.” This is the single most important truth. Love is where beauty, peace, comfort, and grief all find their origin. All good lines lead back to it.