From Kröller-Müller Museum:
The Potato Eaters is the most ambitious painting of Van Gogh’s Dutch period. Prior to starting the painting, he makes over a hundred portrait studies of farmworkers, various drawings and two painted studies. Thus he prepares himself for his first large painting on the theme of peasant life in Brabant, which he regards as a kind of test of his mastery. He wants to prove that he is on his way to becoming an accomplished figure painter. This painting precedes the final version and has virtually the same composition, but the layout is sketchier.
Van Gogh makes the drawings and studies at the home of the peasant family De Groot-van Rooij. It is not his intention to make precise portraits of these people. He seeks to depict the atmosphere and the primitive nature of the arduous peasant life.
He later writes to Theo: You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and (…) that they have thus honestly earned their food’.
To Theo van Gogh. Brussels, Monday, 1 November 1880.
My dear Theo,
I want to tell you a few things in reply to your letter.
First of all, that I went to see Mr Roelofs the day after I received your letter, and he told me that his opinion was that from now on I should concentrate on drawing from nature, i.e. whether plaster or model, but not without guidance from someone who understands it well. And he, and others too, seriously advised me definitely to go and work at a drawing academy, at least for a while, here or in Antwerp or anywhere I could, so I think I should in fact do something about getting admitted to that drawing academy, although I don’t particularly like the idea. Tuition is free here in Brussels, I hear that in Amsterdam, for example, it costs 100 guilders a year, and one can work in an adequately heated and lighted room, which is worth thinking about, especially for the winter.
I’m making headway with the examples of Bargue, and things are progressing. Moreover, I’ve recently drawn something that was a lot of work but I’m glad to have done it. Made, in fact, a pen drawing of a skeleton, rather large at that, on 5 sheets of Ingres paper.
1 sheet the head, skeleton and muscles
1 torso, skeleton
1 hand from the front, skeleton and muscles
1 from the back,
1 pelvis and legs, skeleton.
I was prompted to do it by a manual written by Zahn, Esquisses anatomiques à l’usage des artistes. And it includes a number of other illustrations which seem to me very effective and clear. Of the hand, foot &c. &c.
And what I’m now going to do is complete the drawing of the muscles, i.e. that of the torso and legs, which will form the whole of the human body with what’s already made. Then there’s still the body seen from the back and from the side.
So you see that I’m pushing ahead with a vengeance, those things aren’t so very easy, and require time and moreover quite a bit of patience.
To be admitted to the drawing academy one must have permission from the mayor and be registered. I’m waiting for an answer to my request.
I know, of course, that no matter how frugally, how poorly even, one lives, it will turn out to be more expensive in Brussels than in Cuesmes, for instance, but I shan’t succeed without any guidance, and I think it possible — if I only work hard, which I certainly do — that either Uncle Cent or Uncle Cor will do something, if not as a concession to me at least as a concession to Pa. It’s my plan to get hold of the anatomical illustrations of a horse, cow and sheep, for example, from the veterinary school, and to draw them in the same way as the anatomy of a person.
There are laws of proportion, of light and shadow, of perspective, that one must know in order to be able to draw anything at all. If one lacks that knowledge, it will always remain a fruitless struggle and one will never give birth to anything.
That’s why I believe I’m steering a straight course by taking matters in hand in this way, and want to try and acquire a wealth of anatomy here this winter, it won’t do to wait longer and would ultimately prove to be more expensive because it would be a waste of time. I believe that this will also be your point of view.
Drawing is a hard and difficult struggle.
If I should be able to find some steady work here, all the better, but I don’t dare count on it yet, because I must first learn a great many things.
Also went to see Mr Van Rappard, who now lives at rue Traversière 64, and have spoken to him. He has a fine appearance, I’ve not seen anything of his work other than a couple of small pen drawings of landscapes. But he lives rather sumptuously and, for financial reasons, I don’t know whether he’s the person with whom, for instance, I could live and work. But in any case I’ll go and see him again. But the impression I got of him was that there appears to be seriousness in him.
In Cuesmes, old boy, I couldn’t have stood it a month longer without falling ill with misery. You mustn’t think that I live in luxury here, for my food consists mainly of dry bread and some potatoes or chestnuts which people sell on the street corners, but I’ll manage very well with a slightly better room and by eating a slightly better meal from time to time in a restaurant if that were possible. But for nearly 2 years I endured one thing and another in the Borinage, that’s no pleasure trip. But it will easily amount to something more than 60 francs and really can’t be otherwise. Drawing materials and examples, for instance, for anatomy, it all costs money, and those are certainly essentials, and only in this way can it pay off later, otherwise I’ll never succeed.
I had great pleasure lately in reading an extract from the work by Lavater and Gall. Physiognomie et phrénologie. Namely character as it is expressed in facial characteristics and the shape of the skull.
Drew The diggers by Millet after a photo by Braun that I found at Schmidt’s and which he lent me with that of The evening angelus. I sent both those drawings to Pa so that he could see that I’m doing something.
Write to me again soon. Address 72 blvd du Midi. I’m staying in a small boarding-house for 50 francs a month and have my bread and a cup of coffee here, morning, afternoon and evening. That isn’t very cheap but it’s expensive everywhere here. The Holbeins from the Modèles d’apres les maitres are splendid, I notice that now, drawing them, much more than before. But they aren’t easy, I assure you.
That Mr Schmidt was entangled in a money matter which would involve the Van Gogh family and for which he, namely Mr S., would be justly prosecuted, I knew not the slightest thing about all that when I went to see him, and I first learned of it from your letter. So that was rather unfortunate, though Mr Schmidt received me quite cordially all the same. Knowing it now, though, and matters being as they are, it would perhaps be wise not to go there often, without it being necessary deliberately to avoid meeting him.
I would have written to you sooner but was too busy with my skeleton.
I believe that the longer you think about it the more you’ll see the definite necessity of more artistic surroundings for me, for how is one supposed to learn to draw unless someone shows you? With the best will in the world one cannot succeed without also coming into and remaining in contact with artists who are already further along. Good will is of no avail if there’s absolutely no opportunity for development. As regards mediocre artists, to whose ranks you think I should not want to belong, what shall I say? That depends on what one calls mediocre. I’ll do what I can, but in no way do I despise the mediocre in its simple sense. And one certainly doesn’t rise above that level by despising that which is mediocre, in my opinion one must at least begin by having some respect for the mediocre as well, and by knowing that that, too, already means something and that one doesn’t achieve even that without much effort. Adieu for today, I shake your hand in thought. Write again soon if you can.