The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
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