Vincent van Gogh - The Potato Eaters 1885

The Potato Eaters 1885
The Potato Eaters
Oil on canvas 82.0 x 114.0 cm. Nuenen: April, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

« previous picture | Nuenen - van Gogh's paintings | next picture »

From Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam:
Van Gogh viewed the Potato Eaters as a kind of showpiece, for which he deliberately chose a difficult composition to prove he was on his way to becoming a good figure painter. He wanted the painting to express the idea that these people ‘have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, (…) and that they have thus honestly earned their food,’ he wrote on 30 April 1885 to his brother Theo.
Van Gogh emphasized the harsh reality by exaggerating it. It was gloomy and cramped in the cottage, so his painting had to be similarly dark and constricting. He limited his palette to greens and browns – the colours of the earth that the family worked – adding a few highlights to intensify the effect. His subjects had coarse faces and rough hands, so he gave them scrawny features and large, bony fingers.
Van Gogh was very pleased with the result: ‘And it might well prove to be a real peasant painting. I know that it is.’ Nowadays the Potato Eaters is one of his most celebrated works, yet its dark colours and flawed figures drew considerable criticism at the time. Van Gogh was convinced, however, that these imperfections contributed to the primitive nature of the subject.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Brussels, Friday, 15 October 1880.
Dear Theo,
As you see, I’m writing to you from Brussels. Because I thought it was the right thing to do to move somewhere else for the moment. And that for more than one reason. First, it was from urgent necessity, as the little study where I was staying and which you were able to see last year was so cramped and the light there was so bad that it was very inconvenient for drawing.
It’s true that if I could have had another room in the house I could have stayed, but the people of the house needed it, this other room, to do their household chores and washing, and even if I paid a little more there was no way of having it. It’s also true that for the Exercices au fusain and Les modèles d’après la bosse from Bargue, I did draw them there all the same, either in the little study or outside in the garden, but now that I’ve come to the portraits after Holbein &c. in the 3rd part of the Cours de dessin, it wouldn’t do any more.
That means that I’ve moved, and now to remedy things somewhat radically, here’s my plan, which I’ve begun to carry out. I’ve been to see Mr Schmidt, here in Brussels, and have spoken to him about the matter. That’s to say, I’ve asked him if through his good offices there might not be a way for me to make contact and connection with some artist, so that I could continue to learn in some serious studio. Because I feel that it’s absolutely necessary to have good things before one’s eyes, and also to see artists at work. Because that makes me feel more strongly what I lack, and at the same time I’m learning the way to remedy it.
For a long time now I haven’t seen enough paintings or drawings &c., and the mere sight of a few good things here in Brussels has raised my morale, so to speak, and has further increased the desire that I have to learn to do something with my own hands.
If Mr Schmidt would have the kindness to speak seriously to someone or other I have no doubt that things could work out rather effectively. He received me warmly, but nevertheless, if you would say a word or two in my favour to recommend the matter to him, that would have more effect on him than I could produce, because it’s very natural that he perhaps regards me with some mistrust, due to the fact that I was previously with the firm of G&Cie., then moved, and am now returning again to matters of art. So if you would write him a short line by return of post you’d be doing me a great service and it would save time.
I went straight back to my work here, that’s to say the 3rd part of the Bargues, and have a much more suitable room than the little study, in a small lodging-house in blvd du Midi. My father wrote to me that for the time being I could expect to receive 60 francs a month through him. There are several young people who are beginning the study of drawing and are in the same situation and aren’t rich, either. But the thing that gives strength in such circumstances is that one isn’t always alone, but is in contact and connected with others who are in the same situation.
And so that’s what my great desire is — that through Mr Schmidt’s good offices some door might be opened for me to meet some of the young artists here.
So would you do the thing in question to that effect, i.e. write a short line to Mr S.?
I’ve done a pen drawing after Millet’s woodcutter (the wood engraving that you sent me). I believe that drawing with the pen is a good preparation if later you might wish to learn etching. You can do a great deal with the pen, also, to enhance pencil drawings, but you don’t succeed the first time.
As for the drawing after Ruisdael’s Bush, I’d above all like to work at it in pen, and am preparing myself for that by making trial attempts with other drawings. Among others, I’ve done one of the head of Dante, which is somewhat like an etching. But it’s not as easy as it seems.
At our meeting Mr Schmidt spoke to me about entering L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts8 here, but I told him frankly that it seemed to me that it was far more preferable in my particular case to work at some artist’s. Especially since I’ve already done two series of Bargues and have the 3rd in hand, which I could perhaps complete with Allongé’s charcoals. I don’t, however, dismiss the idea of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, inasmuch as, for example, I could go there in the evening as long as I’m here, if it’s free or not expensive. But my goal must, for the moment at least, remain to learn as quickly as possible to do presentable and saleable drawings, so that I’ll begin to earn an income directly through my work. Because such indeed is the necessity that is imposed upon me.
If you write to me, please address the letter care of Mr Schmidt, because I don’t know if I’ll stay for a long or short time in my present lodgings.
I believe that you’ll approve of what I’m telling you, because in order to make progress it’s necessary to continue with a certain amount of energy.
Once I am master of my pencil or of watercolour or of etching, I can return to the region of the miners or weavers, to do things better from life than thus far. But first I must acquire a modicum of skill.
Mr Schmidt asked at length for news of you and pays you compliments; he’s in the process of moving to another shop in rue du Marché aux Herbes, opposite passage d’Hubert, and this shop is certainly very fine, as far as I’ve been able to see it so far.
Well then, I conclude for the moment, hoping that you’ll be in agreement with what I’ve told you.
I believe that a lodging and perhaps also a diet slightly better than that of the Borinage will also help to build me up a bit. Because I’ve certainly experienced some sufferings in the Belgian ‘black country’, and my health hasn’t been too good lately. But provided that I succeed one day in being able actually to draw what I wish to express, I’ll forget all that and will remember only the good aspect of things, which also exists if one is willing to observe it. But I must nevertheless try to build myself up a little, because I need all my energy.
Shaking your hand