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Exploring Wallpaper in Art

Vincent Van Gogh

We have taken it upon ourselves to explore an artists work where wallpaper has been a defining feature... we begin with Vincent Van Gogh’s portrait of Joseph Roulin painted in 1888 and Augustine Roulin 1889.  Here’s what we discovered...

Paul Gauguin - Mentor & friend to Vincent

It is important to add a little insight to the mentoring Vincent received from his friend and teacher Paul Gauguin, this insight holds much relevance to the authenticity of the wallpaper pattern in the paintings of Joseph and Augustine (below)...  Paul Gauguin had worked with Van Gogh in Arles in the fall of 1888. 

During his mentoring, Gauguin strongly urged Vincent to focus less towards the dependence on observation and more reliance on memory and intuition. This advice may have been especially telling in the case of Van Gogh’s later portraits.  To finer point, after some exploration, the wallpaper within the two following paintings, are in fact solely from memory. It is argued that the portrait of Augustine 'Le Berceuse' possibly reveals signs of Vincent’s decline in his mental health.

Augustine Roulin - 'La berceuse' 1889

There are 5 versions of Madame Roulin’s painting ‘Le Berceuse’ (the lullaby) dated1889

Vincent made a few subtle changes to the palette and the paint handling of the copies, however, one of the most significant alterations were the wallpaper in the fifth, seen here. The background teams with blossoming dahlias, tendril arabesques and dotted blue ovals, which have the look of inseminated fish eggs.   

However, Vincent had carefully copied the pattern in the first four versions, but it seems he had never rigorously worked out the design.  He tries to repeat the pink Dahlia motif twice in the 5th copy from memory, but the uniform structure of an actual wallpaper pattern, completely breaks down. 

Sadly, Vincent had to abandon the painting due to a complete mental breakdown, which some believe is displayed in the wallpaper. This unfortunately resulted in the severing of his left ear.  Vincent returns after a couple of months to the painting and completes it. It is note worthy to mention that the patterned wallpaper also represents the cloth of honour, the traditional drapery that hangs behind enthroned Madonna’s in renaissance alter pieces. 

In today's society, Vincent’ challenges in his mental health, would be recognised as Bipolar disorder.

Joseph Roulin - 1888

Joseph Roulin, a postman... appears in this portrait resplendent in his blue uniform, against a floral background that echoes his lush, swirling beard; he was among Vincent Van Gogh’s most important friends.  Again the wallpaper is entirely from memory.  It is said that Joseph had moved from Arles to Marseille for a better paid position when this was created.