NORTH ANDOVER — To many people, Vincent Van Gogh was the mad artist who painted sunflowers and cut off his ear.
The Dutch impressionist, however, was so much more than that, as historical impersonator Ted Zalewski made clear during his presentation at the North Andover Senior Center yesterday morning. Zalewski, who is well known for his dynamic portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt, did not impersonate Van Gogh.
Rather, he made the subject of one of Van Gogh’s paintings, a French postman named Joseph Roulin, come to life. Actually, Van Gogh not only painted Roulin but his wife and three children as well during his stay in Arles, in the south of France.
Attired in the blue uniform of a French letter carrier, with the inscription “POSTES” on the front of his cap, the recreated Roulin said of the artist he befriended, “He has a wild look in his eyes,” with a “reddish beard, spiky and unkempt.”
Van Gogh, he said, was the son of a minister and studied for that profession. Although he was never ordained, he served as a missionary to a coal-mining district in Belgium, where he literally gave a man the shirt off his back, according to Roulin.
Van Gogh was a very devout man who was eager to do God’s will, Roulin said.
“Some say this is St. Francis; others say this is a madman,” he said. Eventually, he was recalled from his assignment in Belgium, but then he began drawing “picture after picture,” Roulin said.
Van Gogh moved to Paris, where he lived with an artist who taught him how to paint. He then started producing paintings that “exploded in color,” Roulin said.
Van Gogh threw himself into his work and at one point proclaimed, “I’m as happy as a dictator,” according to Roulin. His demons, however, continued to torment him.
He was committed to an asylum and finally shot himself July 27, 1890. Two days later, he died, at 37.
Roulin was terribly saddened by his friend’s death.
“Perhaps I could have talked to Vincent,” he said. “I don’t know how a man who could paint such beautiful flowers could hurt himself.”
Zalewski’s portrayal of Van Gogh’s friend was “just as good as Teddy Roosevelt,” said William Callahan of North Andover. He was referring to Zalewski’s interpretation of TR at the Senior Center back in June.
Arlene Coon, also of North Andover, said Zalewski did a “fantastic job” of bringing to life Van Gogh’s friend the postman. As for Van Gogh, he was more than a crazy man who painted.
He gave the world beautiful paintings, she said.