The Van Gogh Museum opens its exhibition today The Potato Eaters: Mistake or Masterpiece? (until February 13). Vincent considered the image to be his most successful early work. Two years later he wrote to his sister Wil: “The painting of peasants eating potatoes that I did in Nuenen is after all the best thing that I have done.
Few others agreed. Vincent’s friend, Anthon van Rappard, criticized a lithographed copy of The Potato Eaters, which resulted in an immediate rift between them. Only Vincent’s faithful brother, Theo, had any confidence in the painting. Vincent asked him to approach several dealers to find out if they would consider buying the work. These included Thomas Wallis, who ran a gallery in London’s Pall Mall. None of them showed the slightest interest in The Potato Eaters.
Van Gogh had put enormous efforts into the project, after a winter of painting 40 head studies of individual Nuenen peasants. He then made preliminary sketches for the details in The Potato Eaters, like that of a hand holding a bowl of coffee (for the man in the center of the painting). This drawing featured a cat, which suggests he may have been considering a feline presence near the dining table, although that idea was scrapped.
Vincent then made a pencil sketch of the entire composition, followed by a rough oil sketch and finally a full size oil study. Although the pencil and oil sketches are in the exhibit, the oil study was not available for loan. The full-size oil study belongs to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, where it is one of the most popular works – and visitors expect to see it there.
Vincent completed the final painting, the centerpiece of the Mistake or masterpiece? exhibition — early May 1885. Five family members are gathered around the table in their dark cottage, sharing their food under an oil lamp. It is an evening meal, with the clock in the upper left corner at “7” (hard to guess in the reproductions).
The family has rough, weathered faces and large bony hands – Van Gogh’s way of pointing out that they are hard working rural workers. Only one person can be identified with certainty, the woman facing us on the left: Gordina de Groot. It appears in several tables, including Head of a woman (March 1885). The others around the dining table are probably members of the De Groot-van Rooij family.
A few months later, rumors circulated in Nuenen that Vincent was having an affair with Gordina, then 30 years old. Although single, she had fallen pregnant and the local Catholic priest suggested that the artist was responsible. Vincent vigorously denied this, telling Theo: “A girl I had often painted was having a child and they thought it was mine, even though it wasn’t me. He complained to the mayor that it was actually a member of the priest’s congregation who got Gordina pregnant. The storm eventually subsided, but it was more difficult for Vincent to get models.
The interior of Gordina’s family hut is traditionally reported in a photograph published in 1926, when it was very dilapidated. Van Gogh also depicted a twilight view of his exterior in The cottage (May 1885). In The cottage a woman, with a cap like Gordina’s, stands just outside and a welcoming hearth can be seen through a window. The building was demolished during WWII and a replacement built in the 1950s (its address is 4 Gerwenseweg).
Théo, who admired The Potato Eaters, hung the painting above the fireplace in his Parisian apartment. After his death, his widow Jo Bonger kept him in his dining room with each move. From 1917 to 20, it was among several key paintings by Van Gogh that she lent to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Johan van Gogh, Theo and Jo’s grandson, recalled the meals under The Potato Eaters. For him, the painting embodies the pleasure shared by a family gathered around the table at the end of a working day. However, not all visitors liked the photo, and a friend always sat where he could avoid seeing it. In 1973 The Potato Eaters, along with the rest of the family’s art collection, went to the newly established Van Gogh Museum.
The Potato Eaters: Mistake or Masterpiece?, curated by curator Bregje Gerritse, includes 24 works by Van Gogh on paper and 21 paintings. They all belong to the Amsterdam museum, with the exception of a portrait of a peasant which comes from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. With very few outside loans, it’s an ideal sight to put on as the Netherlands emerges from Covid-19 – when international lending is logistically complicated and visitor ticket revenues remain on the decline. But although relatively modest in scope, a Van Gogh exhibition centered around a single painting provides an in-depth look at his work.
And was the painting a mistake or a masterpiece? Van Gogh himself liked the concept, although he became dissatisfied with its execution. In April 1890, five years later, while he was at the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence asylum, he considered making a new version of The Potato Eaters. Vincent writes to Théo: “I am thinking of remaking the picture of the peasants having dinner, a lamppost effect. But although he did some associated rough sketches, nothing came of a new version of the painting.
Today we have mixed feelings about The Potato Eaters, with its dark colors. Vincent’s dark tones were deliberate and, as he told his brother, he was aiming for “the color of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course”. But its colors have darkened considerably, and the painting should now be seen in bright light (and it doesn’t reproduce well).
In terms of composition, the figures around the table appear as a series of individuals, rather than a cohesive and interacting group. For us today, a disconcerting aspect of the painting is the caricature of the peasants, reflecting the attitudes of the artist’s time.
But despite these problems, the paint retains great power. You can feel Van Gogh’s determination to understand the difficult life of the peasants and to stress the importance of family ties. As Vincent explained to Theo, in The Potato Eaters he imitated his artistic hero Jean-François Millet, who used earthy tones to paint peasants “with the land they sow”.
More Van Gogh news
• Next week, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris will open a fascinating exhibition on the art collection put together by the neo-impressionist artist Paul Signac. The works on display include those of Van Gogh Two herring (private collection), which Vincent gave to his friend in March 1889 when he was recovering from mutilating his ear. Signac Collector (12 October-13 February 2022) is organized by Marina Ferretti (Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny) and Charlotte Hellman (great-granddaughter of the artist and archivist of Signac).
You can find the 140 blogs of Adventures with Van Gogh here.
Martin bailey is the author of Van Gogh’s final: Auvers and the artist’s rise to glory (Francis Lincoln, 2021, available in UK and U.S). He is one of Van Gogh’s leading scholars and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has organized exhibitions on Van Gogh at the Barbican Art Gallery and at Compton Verney / National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019). He has written a number of other bestselling books, including Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in UK and U.S), Studio from the South: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in UK and U.S) and Starry night: Van Gogh at the asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in UK and U.S). Whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in UK and U.S) gives a glimpse into the artist’s life. Van Gogh’s Illustrated Letters from Provence has been reissued (Batsford 2021, available in UK and U.S).
• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: [email protected] Please refer questions about the authentication of possible Van Goghs to the Van Gogh Museum.