Famous Paintings Reviewed - An Art History Blog

Vincent van Gogh and "The Potato Eaters"

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, the son of a Calvinist pastor.  His early life was marked by career uncertainty: he left school in 1869 to work for an art dealer, who fired him seven years later; he spent two years as a lay preacher working with impoverished miners, but was denied ordination because Calvinist authorities considered him overly passionate. At the age of 27, van Gogh resolved to become an artist, receiving lifelong emotional and financial support from his brother, Theo. This support included frequent letters written between the two, providing an boon for art history - they facilitate analysis of the relationship between each of van Gogh's works of art and the historical context in which it was painted (click van Gogh letters for the complete English transcriptions of all 900+ letters to and from him).
From 1883 to 1885, van Gogh painted at his father's vicarage in Nuenen, Holland, where he painted The Ποτατο

Millet The Sower

Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower. Oil on canvas, 1850.  40" x 32.5".  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Eaters.  In it, his empathy toward coal miners reveals influences from 19th century Realism, from van Gogh's personal ministry with this same population, from the famous painter, Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), and from his lesser known contemporary, Jozef Israels (1824-1910). The realistic art and peasant imagery of Millet were enormously influential on van Gogh, especially Millet's famous painting, The Sower. In a letter to Theo describing
Israels Peasant Family

Jozef Israels, Peasant Family at Table.  Oil on canvas, 1882.  Approximately 28" x 41".  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
his own painting of peasants, van Gogh said, "While I was doing it I thought again about what has so rightly been said of Millet's peasants - ‘His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow'".  Van Gogh also admired Israels, a painter of fishermen and peasants whom van Gogh described to Theo as the "Dutch Millet". Israels' Peasant Family at Tabledoubtlessly motivated van Gogh to create his own version of a peasants' meal.  
Compositionally, The Potato Eaters echoes Israels' work of art.  Van Gogh's painting, however, has darker hues, an impastopaint texture, and more influence of Rembrandt's tenebrism (a painting style employed by Caravaggio and followers in which a few objects are brightly lit while the majority are in heavy shadow).  Its
van Gogh's Potato Eaters

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters.  Oil on canvas, 1885.  Approximately 32" x 45".  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
perspective is askew - look how abruptly the ceiling beams recede - and reveals van Gogh's technical naivete. Perhaps this lack of experience permits his passion to exude, however. The peasants' gnarled hands and fingers evince severe arthritic pain, while the folds and wrinkles in their tattered clothing seem to restrain some unwieldy force within.  On the wall, the Crucifixion picture and clock seem poised to jump off the wall rather than remain attached.  This explosive energy within this work of art is a heartfelt but unsentimental contrast to its solemnity and tranquility, in which these peasants have merely coffee and potatoes to eat after a physically taxing day. Van Gogh was pleased with Potato Eaters, writing to Theo that "in contrast to a great many other paintings, it has rusticity and a certain life in it. And then, although it's done differently, in a different century from the old Dutchmen, Ostade, for instance, it's nevertheless out of the heart of peasant life and - original."
Van Gogh's painting career was tragically abbreviated by his unspecifiable mental illness; the physician who admitted him to a psychiatric hospital in 1888 noted that Van Gogh had "acute mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing."  His failure to achieve financial stability was profoundly troubling - in his lifetime, he sold only one painting, Red Vineyard at Arles, had no patrons, and was forced to remain financially dependent on Theo.  Although he had van Gogh Red Vineyard at Arlesrecently received a postive review from the art critic Alberet Aurier (read it here), van Gogh shot himself and died in 1890.
Van Gogh's impact on art history is incalcuabale: in one decade, he created roughly 1000 works of art (including 70 paintings in his final 70 days) and inspired Fauvists, Expressionists and legions of famous painters including Gauguin (1848 - 1903),Matisse (1869 - 1854), Maurice Vlaminck (1876 - 1958), Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 - 1907), and Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992). Even with the brevity of his life, van Gogh remains one of the most famous artists in art history.
Van Gogh, Red Vineyard in Arles.  Oil on canvas, 1888. Pushkin Museum. 

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