This portrait of Joseph Roulin is one of six that van Gogh painted of his close friend, a postal employee in the southern French town of Arles. In 1888, van Gogh moved to Arles, a fifteen-hour train ride from Paris, in the hopes of creating an artist cooperative. The plan never came to fruition, and the artist found himself lonely and isolated—a situation exacerbated by his inability to speak the challenging local Provençal dialect. Van Gogh found comfort and companionship with the Roulin family, and they became the subjects of many of his most important paintings.
Van Gogh was drawn to Roulin's distinctive facial features, his devotion to his wife and children, and to the exceptional kindness he demonstrated toward the artist (when van Gogh was hospitalized in 1888, Roulin looked after his studio and checked in on him repeatedly). In this portrait, believed to be painted from memory, Roulin is depicted in the postal uniform he always wore proudly, set against an imaginative backdrop of swirling flowers. In one of the many letters van Gogh sent to his brother Theo, he wrote that of all subjects, "the modern portrait" excited him the most. As he elaborated, "I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we try to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring."