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Vincent van Gogh - The Potato Eaters

by Alexandra Tuschka

This is supposed to be a van Gogh? - one might ask, since the difference in style is very obvious compared to his famous later works of art. The figures are much more concrete, the color much more impasto and opaque, the light falls much more sparsely into the scene. This work was created in 1885 and thus marks the beginning of the famous Dutchman's painting career. It is to remain the only group portrait of his entire oeuvre.

Five people have gathered around a table in a parlor, a gas lamp lights the room only meagerly. The clock strikes 7, time for dinner. Tonight there are steaming potatoes, which we see on the left, and freshly brewed coffee poured by the elderly lady on the right. A girl is standing at the table, we see her only from behind. A small, religious painting hangs on the wall. A window on the right and a door on the left delimit the room, everything is crowded, but somehow seems very cozy. Although perspective and also anatomy were not worked out consistently and one could easily accuse the painting of caricatural traits, one senses a deep respect and sympathy of the painter for the depicted. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh describes his intention very precisely: "Look, I really wanted to make it so that people would get the idea that these people who eat their potatoes by the light of their little lamp have worked the earth themselves with these hands that they put into the bowl, and so it speaks of MANUAL WORK and - that they have earned their food so honestly (...) I wanted it to convey the idea of a very different way of life from ours - civilized people. So I certainly don't want everyone to just admire it or approve of it without knowing why.(...) A peasant girl is more beautiful than a lady. But - if she puts on the costume of a lady, then the authenticity is lost." In these lines Vincent expresses very precisely what he appreciates in peasant life, it is above all the authenticity. Therefore, he very deliberately chose "earth colors" for the painting, which also makes it look so earthy and intimate to us. The hands and faces are furrowed from the hard work and yet there is something dignified in the look that van Gogh expresses here.

We see a typical "peasant" subject, a meal shared together. This subject was inspired by similar works of other painters like this example of Jozef Israel. With this motif van Gogh places himself in the tradition of fellow artists, but of course also processes his own environment. He created this work at the beginning of his painting career, when he lived in Nuenen, a small town in the southern Netherlands, where he worked out numerous studies of peasant life. Even for this work, which he created - as he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo - in a relatively short time, he nevertheless needed a whole winter full of studies. He placed particular emphasis on the heads and hands of the peasants, as is also evident here.

Theo was sent the painting by his brother; he was to submit it to the Salon. "I am curious if you will find something in it that you like - I hope so," Vincent wrote, knowing that the work would not meet everyone's taste. He was right: "The Potato Eaters" did not meet the taste of the contemporary public, it was strongly criticized for its darkness, rather monochrome color choice and perspective carelessness. Today, however, it enjoys high recognition and is representative of this earliest phase of van Gogh's artistic work, which is so remarkably different from the rest of his oeuvre. Finally, we would like to let the artist have his say once again: "And likewise, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a peasant painting a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam - good - that's not unhealthy - if a barn smells of manure - very good, that's what a barn is for - if the field smells of ripe wheat or potatoes or - of guano and manure - that's really healthy - especially for city people. They have something useful about such images. But a peasant image should not be perfumed." Well said!

Vincent van Gogh - The Potato Eaters

Oil on canvas, 1885, 81.5 x 114.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Jozef Israel - Peasant family at the table

Oil on canvas, 1882, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


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