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Van Gogh’s Creation of The Potato Eaters

by VanGoghology

To Theo. Nuenen, Monday, 6 April 1885.

I plan to make a start this week on that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes in the evening, or — perhaps I’ll make daylight of it, or both, or — ‘neither one’ — you’ll say. But should it succeed or should it fail, I’m going to start on the studies for the different figures.

One of Vincent’s most respected works today is De Aardappeleters (Dutch) ‘The Potato Eaters. It is an ambitious masterpiece renowned for its subject matter, technique, meticulous preparation, and the harsh criticism it garnered as the paint was still drying.

In all of its glorious gloom and doom, Vincent managed to successfully depict what he had set out to achieve, the harsh reality of rural life in the Netherlands during the late 19th century.

Painted in 1885, during his experimental years as an artist, the artwork features a group of impoverished peasants huddled around a table, eating their meager meal of boiled potatoes. The painting is known for its dark and somber color palette, which effectively conveys the sense of deprivation and suffering with which Vincent felt an empathetic comradery. 

To create a sense of depth and realism, Van Gogh appears to have used a limited palette of muted colors, mainly browns, greens, and grays. There are, however, several primary and secondary colors within the painting; red, for example, was combined with green to create a yellowish gray, while blue and orange (a combination of yellow and red) produced brown. He applied the paint thickly, giving the painting a rough texture and creating a sense of heaviness. The use of shadows and highlights creates a dramatic effect.

Light is derived from a single source, emitted by the oil lamp suspended over the dinner table. The use of chiaroscuro helps create the illusion of three-dimensional volume while increasing separation from the background. 

The Potato Eaters first and second studiesVincent started showing interest in studying chiaroscuro as early as 1883. He delved significantly deeper into the subject the following year, having borrowed a book from his friend and fellow artist, Anthon van Rappard. The book written by color theorist Professor Charles Blanc was titled “The Artists of My Time” (Les artistes de mi-temps). Upon finishing the book, Vincent was determined to master the often difficult chiaroscuro technique.

The subjects have large, gnarly hands, with coarse protruding facial features that seem earthy, almost as if they were carved from the very produce they excavate. Their desperate dinner of potatoes and coffee seems almost sacred; they are solemn, most likely exhausted from a day of hard labor, and yet, so appreciative. 

Light-dark offers contrasting images of how they are gathered, and while other parts of the house are bathed in darkness, they are central to the theme. The clock on the wall, for example, points to 7 o’clock, dinner time. There is also a religious picture, kitchen utensils, and a few hanging sausages. If you look very closely you can see ‘Vincent’ painted on the upper rung of the chair.

Clock and religious picture
Clock and religious picture
Signed Vincent back of chair
Signed Vincent back of chair
Potato Eaters Utensils and Sausages
Utensils and hanging sausages

Vincent had spent months prepping for what would become one of his greatest artistic achievements. 

During the winter of 1884/85, he had carried out dozens of preliminary studies, pointing out to Theo in February 1885 that he was “hard at work on painting those heads. I paint during the day and draw in the evening. I’ve already painted at least 30 or so this way, and drawn as many”. 

In addition to the many test studies Vincent drew and painted, he also composed two other preliminary versions of ‘The Potato Eaters’ in oil. In the first study, he was not too concerned with the details and instead concentrated on the interplay of light and shadow on four individuals. 

The second study, which took Vincent three days to complete, includes five individuals, and while they are all part of the De Groot family, they differ from the final version. This second study was painted inside the peasants’ cottage and exhibits the presence of Cornelia van Rooij {de Groot), her brothers Antonie van Rooij, and Francis (Sis) van Rooij, and Cornelia’s sister Maria van Rooij.

The third and final masterpiece Maria van Rooij is replaced by Cornelia’s daughter Gordina de Groot whom Vincent painted on numerous occasions. (While one prefers not to correct the Van Gogh Museum which referred to the man with the cup as a friend of the family, one must, for he is related, and lived in the cottage.) His name is Antonie van Rooij, or ‘This, and worked as a linen weaver.

The-Potato-Eaters-individuals

Van Gogh completed the final version in his studio, although he did physically take the painting to the DeGroot cottage where he undertook some necessary ‘touch-ups’. 

In May 1885, Vincent wrote at length to Theo about the Potato Eaters… 

“The subject here is a grey interior, lit by a small lamp. The drab linen tablecloth, the smoke-stained wall, the dusty caps in which the women have worked on the land — all these, when you look at them through your eyelashes, prove to be very dark grey in the light of the lamp, and the lamp, although being a red gold glow, is even lighter — and by a long way — than that white.

Now the flesh tones; I know that on a superficial examination, that is if you don’t think it through, they look like what people call flesh color. I did paint them that way at the beginning of the painting — some yellow ochre, red ochre, and white, for example. But that was much too light and certainly didn’t do.

Francis Sis van Rooij

Francis (Sis) van Rooij

What was to be done? — I had finished all the heads and even finished them with great care — but I quickly repainted them without mercy, and the color they’re painted now is something like the color of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course.

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’. A phrase I can’t help thinking of whenever I see them at work, outside as well as indoors. I’m certain that if you were to ask Millet, Daubigny, and Corot to paint a snowy landscape without using white they would do it and the snow would appear white in their paintings”.

Vincent goes on to express his concern over the Lithograph version of the second study, mentioning that the effect is woolly, but then returns to the subject of the painting.

When I went to the cottage this evening I found the folk eating their meal by the light of the little window instead of under the lamp. Oh, it was astonishingly beautiful. The color was also singular, you remember those heads painted against the window, the effect was like that, only darker still. So that the two women and the interior were almost exactly the same color as dark green soap. But the figure of the man on the left was just lit by light coming in from a door further along. Thus head and hands became the color of, say, a 10-centime piece, that is, dull copper. And his smock the most delicate faded blue possible, where the light caught it”.

Gijsbertus de Groot pictured in the famous cottage - Benno J. Stokvis 1926
 Gijsbertus de Groot pictured in the famous cottage - Benno J. Stokvis 1926
Gijsbertus de Groot, brother of Gordina
Gijsbertus de Groot, brother of Gordina

Van Gogh’s friend and student Anton Kerssemakers recalls the day Vincent showed up at his Eindhoven house with the painting.

When he had finished his picture called “The Potato Eaters,” a picture done in very dark colors, with a hanging lamp over the table, around which a peasant family is sitting and eating steaming potatoes out of a dish, he carried it with him to Eindhoven to show me.

 

Afterward he made a lithograph of this picture at a label factory; he made twenty prints of this lithograph, some of which may still be in existence. Mine, however, became hopelessly tattered later on, as it was printed on ordinary inferior paper.

Vincent had asked Theo to find out from the magazine Le Chat Noir whether they would be interested in an illustration of the potato eaters; He drew some sketches on letter paper in case Theo ran into someone from the magazine. 

Sketch in a letter to Theo - 13 April 1885
Sketch in a letter to Theo - 13 April 1885
Sketch in a letter to Theo - 13 April 1885
Sketch in a letter to Theo - 9 April 1885

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