‘The potato eaters’: a work relegated to oblivion


For Vincent van Gogh, ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885) was his masterpiece with a realistic message, And she prepared it with dedication, but her brother Theo believed it was full of mistakes and no one would take it seriously in the art market in Paris, so he let it dust on his mantelpiece.

More than a century later, this canvas is the focus of the exhibition presented this Thursday by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which will allow admirers of the master to judge for themselves this piece, placed in context, with the genesis of how it was created, what it meant to the artist and the criticism it received.

About fifty paintings, drawings, sketches and letters from the collection of this Dutch art gallery, together with two loans, put a perspective on a portrait of a group, who began to draw in March 1885 in Nuenen, a peasant village in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands, according to Efe Bregje Gerritse, curator of the exhibition.

Van Gogh had lived there with his parents and used that same setting for the painting with which he sought to sell himself to the world as a figure painter, but, given his little experience portraying standing people, he chose a family sitting at the table, or whatever. he himself called “that thing with the peasants around a plate of potatoes at night.”

Van Gogh’s idea was to show poverty and the harsh reality of peasant life, which he highlighted with rough faces and bony hands that “have tilled the land”

He spent months practicing how to draw heads, and drew up dozens of preliminary sketches showing advances in his painting technique., until reaching the final version: a painting with dark tones and five people: two eating from a plate of hot potatoes, two serving and drinking coffee, and a girl with her back to her sitting at the table.

Behind it, a clock shows the Dutch dinner time: it has just struck 7pm. Above their heads, an oil lamp hangs that takes over from the sun and illuminates the room where they are, a space that housed the entire house: dining room, kitchen and bedroom.

Self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh.


Van Gogh’s idea was show the poverty and harsh reality of peasant life, which stood out with rough faces and bony hands that “have tilled the land” to obtain the food “that they are now putting on the plate…. they have honestly earned their food, “wrote the artist.

“He was not looking for technical perfection with his painting, but the message I wanted to convey about peasant life, about the raw honesty of hard country life. For him, the painting was a success, and although he did not use the term ‘masterpiece’, he considered it similar to the Sunflowers, his Room or La Berceuse ”, explains Gerritse.

His great friend and artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-1892) was not at all excited about the work. “Come now! I think art is too relevant to be treated with such arrogance, “Van Rappard told him, in a critique that marked the end of their friendship.

“This is my best work”

But Van Gogh, who wanted to portray the harsh reality, “continued to believe in his piece and the message conveyed was more important than the mistakes he could have made in the painting”, Gerritse analyzes. His brother placed it on the fireplace, nor did he bother to offer it for sale, even though Van Gogh wanted it as a business card.

He was an idealistic painter, a man of the people, who did not enjoy the city, and was convinced of the message he wanted to conveyBut this famous painting, the curator believes, would not have impressed Paris in those days either, due to its obscurity in the midst of the new modern art of the time, which Van Gogh was unaware of at the time.

The Amsterdam museum also houses a full-scale reconstruction of the interior of the house of these peasants, as drawn by Van Gogh, and visitors can sit at the table of that family

In 1887, he wrote to his sister Guillermina: ‘This is my best work.’ That is very interesting because at that time he had already gone to Paris, he had changed his working methods and his style, more towards bright colors, but he still had in mind the dark painting of Nuenen ”, says the curator.

In 1890, about five years later, he again began to draw pictures of potato eaters. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, southern France, and nostalgia for the north made him want to “visit his most important work” of his early years.

The Amsterdam museum also houses a full-scale reconstruction of the interior of the house of these peasants, as Van Gogh drew it, and visitors can sit at that family’s table, pose, photograph themselves, or stand in the corner where the artist spent hours preparing their favorite painting.

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