In September 1888 Van Gogh moved into the Yellow House in Arles, which he hoped would become an artists’ colony. Paul Gauguin, whom he admired greatly, was the first to be invited. Gauguin arrived in October and for a few weeks they worked side by side. But the tensions between the two artists soon began to escalate and came to a head in December. Van Gogh cut off his earlobe and was admitted to hospital in a highly agitated state, Gauguin returned to Paris.
In Arles, Van Gogh was on friendly terms with the postman Joseph Roulin and his wife Augustine. In the first three months after being discharged from hospital he painted Madame Roulin’s portrait in five almost identical versions. The simplification of colours and lines (flat surfaces of colour inside black contours) was something he adopted from Gauguin. ‘La Berceuse’ means the woman rocking the cradle. Augustine holds a rope in her hands with which she can rock the cradle and here it symbolizes ‘motherhood’ in general. For Van Gogh, this portrait was not really about the likeness, but about the atmosphere. With the title and the warm colours he wanted to evoke a feeling of gratitude and solace in the observer.