The potato eaters, 1885

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 82 X 114 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
  • F 82

Van Gogh deliberately chose a composition which would challenge his growing prowess as a painter. And like the French master Jean-François Millet, Van Gogh wanted to be a true “peasant painter.”

This meant Van Gogh tried to paint his subjects with deep feeling, but without sentimentality. He spoke of them leading 'a way of life completely different from ours, from that of civilized people.' He strove to paint the faces, 'the color of a good, dusty potato, unpeeled naturally,' and to convey the idea that these people had 'used the same hands with which they now take food from the plate to dig the earth […] and had thus earned their meal honestly.'

More information about "The potato eaters"

The peasants' meal

Van Gogh’s subject, a peasant family at table, was not completely new. In 1882, a few years before Van Gogh’s Potato eaters, Jozef Israëls had painted Peasant family at table, now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh was a great admirer of Israëls, a painter of peasants and fishermen whom he considered to be a sort of 'Dutch Millet.' He had seen Israëls’s picture, and had described it in a letter to Theo in March 1882. The picture doubtlessly inspired Van Gogh to make his own version of a peasant family enjoying a simple meal.

Changes in the Composition

In the first compositional studies for The potato eaters – a drawing and an oil sketch – we find only four figures, grouped around a table with a platter of potatoes. Van Gogh added the second woman at the left in a later sketch, forcing the others to move farther apart. Because the woman at the right was now too far away from the food, the painter gave her the task of pouring coffee. The result is rather strange because in Van Gogh’s day combining coffee and potatoes would have been quite unusual.

The artist was apparently satisfied with his composition. He used it in the final painting and even made a detailed lithograph of it before beginning with the definitive version, which he sent to his brother Theo and several art dealers. Neither the lithograph nor the finished painting brought him the success he had hoped for. On the contrary, the work was severely criticized – particularly the figures’ somewhat wooden poses. His colleague Van Rappard’s comments were so harsh that Van Gogh immediately broke off their friendship.

Leo Jansen on 'The potato eaters'

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