In 1883, after leaving his wife Sien and his children Vincent Van Gogh headed to Nuenen. Coming off a disturbing part of his life, which included the break up with his ex-wife with several issues and suffering from gonorrhea, he was having a considerably difficult time. In Nuenen, Van Gogh started to devote himself to drawing, and started to gain attachment and sympathy for the peasant way of living.
This attachment brought him to study closer the works of Jean-François Millet, an artist who Van Gogh praised for his paintings of peasant working.
Van Gogh believed the subjects to be of great importance to humanity; and he would also have great admiration for them as people for the fact that they would have an honest living with their harvests. After a series of paintings of peasants, he came out with “The Potato Eaters” .
In a letter to Theo in April of 1885, Van Gogh mentions that his point in “The Potato Eaters” was to show everyday life, “to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labor and – a meal honestly earned”.
He also demonstrated himself worried to portray them genuinely, painting them as if he was one of them, feeling and thinking what they were thinking. Before painting the definite version of this painting, Van Gogh produced numerous portrait studies and composition sketches in charcoal and oil.
His drawings in charcoal were mainly used for him to study the proportions, something he was keen on following precisely. When he starts to paint in oil, the first sketch contains only four people, said to be the true representation of the scene.
The second sketch was said to be primarily a study in chiaroscuro, which referred to the pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color. This was a technique he used which he learnt from studying Rembrandts paintings during the period he was in Holland. The final piece was done in his studio, as he wanted to be interpreting it mainly by memory. Nevertheless, struggling to achieve the spontaneity, he returned to the cottage to retouch the canvas ‘from life’; mainly for expressions.
The painting shows three female and two male figures, sitting at a round table eating potatoes. Over them, on the center of the painting, an oil lamp candle burns as the only source of light in the painting. As previously mentioned, this painting was created using chiaroscuro, and therefore did not contain so many diverse colors. Instead, Van Gogh used several shades of black and brown, and then a little bit of orange for the burning flame. One out of the three female figures has her back to you and is set in the middle of the painting serving as a repoussoir element. The figure is also stopping the light that is being “reflected” off the table and onto us.
Around her, you can notice Van Gogh almost created an aura of smoke, to also continue portraying this dirty gloomy environment, which the peasants live within. Van Gogh also focused on the face of the peasants, which convey emotion and which seem to all be interacting with one-another. It is interesting to notice how he uses the shadows to show how that burning flame is the only source of light in the painting. When looking at it in the Museum, it is extremely powerful, and the bright color of the burning flame is extremely penetrating and truly brings everything to life. Also, by painting mainly with earthly tones, it brings a certain naturalistic feeling, resembling the peasants in their daily work.
Van Gogh uses smooth lines in his painting, not too rough and straight, but more malleable in a sense, capturing movement and the spontaneity he wanted. On the background of the piece, where he sets some rafter boards, and windows, all drawn with soft gentle lines as well as the straight put picture frame and the large column holding the cottage up makes drags you even further and conveys accurate space.
Van Gogh based many of his works on those of Jean-François Millet. Millet was said to be preoccupied with the “study of human types, importance of physiognomy” . Therefore, Van Gogh wanted to portray the peasants as ugly, brutish and gross, just as he saw them. He did not want to “sugar coat” them, instead wanted them to be seen for what they were.
Some historical accounts mention that Van Gogh would search for the ‘ugliest’ of the peasants to model for him so that he would be able to get the harsh emotions of their reality. Another painter who is mentioned to be an influence in Van Gogh’s painting of “The Potato Eaters” is Jozef Israels and his painting “Peasant Family at Table”. Completed in 1882, it was three years earlier than Van Gogh’s painting and has some similarities in tones of color and the idea of the light shining from the table, even though it did not have the burning lantern.
I chose to analyze this painting because when I looked at it, i found myself looking for the storyline, almost hearing the coffee being poured and almost being able to hear the crackle in the wood inside the cottage. It made me feel as if I was in there, sitting with them in a way, or at least wanting to, intrigued by their “conversation” almost.
Some other paintings such as “The Straw Hut at Dusk” as well as the “Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette” were impacting. “The Straw Hut at Dusk” compliments the painting of “The Potato Eaters”, as if it was what was happening before coming into the house and sitting down with the people eating the potatoes, it started or continued the story. It also portrays the same gloomy feeling as “The Potato Eaters”, and once again, the use of the bright orange dot in the side window is eye-catching, and just makes you wonder what is going on in there.
The painting of the skull smoking the cigarette was also interesting since you can compare the structure used in his skeleton and the ones used in the painting of “The Potato Eaters”. Nevertheless, this painting spoke to me personally because it conveyed a very conveys still today, almost a century after, a modern feel.
“The Potato Eaters” is said to be one of Van Gogh’s first well-recognized piece even though it was in the beginning of his artistic carrier and when he had not yet mastered the techniques that would later make him famous. Nevertheless, this was to Van Gogh the true development of impressionism. He did not want to capture a moment in time, instead he wanted to capture the emotions, the feeling of what was occurring and wanted to portray that in terms of color and line.