Vincent made friends with the postal official Joseph Etienne Roulin (1841–1903), who lived nearby with his family. In July 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo:
To thank Roulin for posing for a portrait, Vincent gave him the painting as a gift. Vincent was delighted with his new model and decided to paint Roulin’s entire family. In all, he made more than 20 portraits of them. He wrote in December 1888:
“But I’ve done the portraits of an entire family, the family of the postman whose head I did before – the man, his wife, the baby, the young boy and the 16-year-old son, all characters and very French, although they have a Russian look.”
Augustine Roulin, Joseph’s wife, served as the model for La Berceuse. Vincent made at least five versions of the painting and gave the Roulins one.
When Vincent was in hospital in Arles from 24 December 1888 to 7 January 1889 after his first mental breakdown, Roulin came to see him. He kept the Van Gogh family informed of how Vincent was doing and made sure his rent was paid and his house cleaned. After Vincent was allowed to go home, Roulin visited him as often as he could. Two weeks later, however, Roulin moved away to take up a new job in Marseille. He later visited Vincent in hospital again, and they kept up a correspondence during Vincent's stay at the asylum in Saint-Rémy.