Postman Joseph Roulin

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch (worked in France), 1853–1890)


81.3 x 65.4 cm (32 x 25 3/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery (Gallery 255)





One of van Gogh’s closest friends and favorite sitters in Arles was the local postman, Joseph Roulin. While painting this work, van Gogh wrote to his brother, “I am now at work with another model, a postman in blue uniform, trimmed with gold, a big bearded face, very like Socrates.” Indeed, the modest postman has all the authority of an admiral. Van Gogh also painted several portraits of Madame Roulin (for example, MFA object no. 48.548), as well as images of their children, delighted, as he wrote, to depict “a whole family.”


1889, given or left by the artist to Joseph and Marie Ginoux, Arles; July 9, 1897, sold by the Ginoux, through Henri Laget, to Ambroise Vollard (b. 1867 - d. 1939), Paris [see note 1]; probably September 1, 1897, sold by Vollard to Cornelis Hoogendijk (b. 1866 - d. 1911), The Hague [see note 2]; May 21-22, 1912, posthumous Hoogendijk sale, Frederik Muller, Amsterdam, lot 26, to Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (stock no. 19248) and Paul Cassirer, Inc., Berlin; 1916, sold by Cassirer to Carl Sternheim (b. 1878 - d. 1942) and Théa Sternheim (b. 1883 - d. 1971), La Hulpe, Belgium [see note 3]; February 11, 1919, Théa Sternheim sale, Frederik Muller, Amsterdam, lot 8, not sold [see note 4]; until 1928, in the Sternheim collection [see note 5]; 1928, sold by Théa Sternheim, through Alfred Flechtheim, to the Galerie Étienne Bignou, Paris [see note 6]; 1928, sold by Bignou to M. Knoedler and Co., New York (stock no. A289) and Alex Reid and Lefèvre, Ltd., London [see note 7]; 1928, sold by Knoedler to Robert Treat Paine, 2nd (b. 1861 - d. 1943), Boston; 1935, gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd, to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 5, 1935)

[1] Although in 1888 van Gogh sent many paintings from Arles to his brother Theo in Paris, he retained the painting of the Postman Roulin. When the artist departed Arles for St. Rémy in May 1889, he left a number of paintings with his landlords the Ginoux -- though whether he intended to store them or leave them as gifts is not known. After his death the paintings were rediscovered and sold by the Ginoux through the agent Laget. See Walter Feilchenfeldt, By Appointment Only (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), pp. 293-305.

[2] Hoogendijk made at least seven visits to Vollard's gallery between 1897 and 1899. He is known to have purchased a large group of paintings by Van Gogh on September 1, 1897; he acquired further paintings by the artist in 1899. See Herbert Henkels, "Cézanne en Van Gogh in het Rijksmuseum voor Moderne Kunst in Amsterdam: de collectie van Cornelis Hoogendijk (1866-1911)," Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 41 (1993): 274-275, n. 23 and Rebecca A. Rabinow, ed., Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde (exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006), pp. 57, 59 n. 38, and 223. According to Feilchenfeldt 2006 (as above, n. 1), p. 304, this painting was among those sold in September, 1897.

[3] See Théa Sternheim, "Tagebücher, 1905-1927" (Mainz, 1995), pp. 181, 449. The picture was purchased in January of that year.

[4] Only three paintings from the auction were sold; all the others, including the "Postman Joseph Roulin," were returned to the Sternheims. See Carl Sternheim, "Briefe: Briefwechsel mit Thea Sternheim, Dorothea und Klaus Sternheim" (Luchterhand, 1988), vol. 2, p. 759.

[5] The painting was lent by Carl Sternheim to the exhibition "Ausstellung von Meisterwerken aus Privatsammlungen," Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Germany, August 20 - September 24, 1922. Following the exhibition, the painting - along with other works of art from the Sternheim collection - was deposited at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur. A letter from Heinz Keller, Curator, Kunstmuseum Winterthur to Angelica Rudenstine of the MFA (April 24, 1964), indicates that he did not know when the paintings were returned. However, the "Postman Joseph Roulin" was lent to the exhibition "Vincent van Gogh," Kunsthalle, Basel, March 27 - April 21, 1924 and Kunsthaus, Zurich, July 3 - August 10, 1924. In the catalogue it is said to be on deposit at Winterthur. Théa and Carl Sternheim divorced in 1927 and Théa retained possession of the painting.

[6] See Théa Sternheim, "Erinnerungen" (Freiburg, 1995), p. 504.

[7] According to letters from Duncan Macdonald of the Bignou Gallery (November 1, 1940) and G. Corcoran of Alex Reid and Lefèvre, Ltd. (April 30, 1964) in the MFA curatorial file. The galleries Bignou and Reid and Lefevre were associated, and shared a stock of paintings.

Credit Line

Gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd