GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)
The Potato EatersApril 1885, Nuenen
Oil on canvas, 83 x 116 cm
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
Catalogue numbers: F 82, JH 764.
In Nuenen van Gogh was able to paint and draw more from the figure; the rural labourers of Brabant were often unemployed and, because they needed money, they agreed to pose for the painter. The most important work of this period in Nuenen was a multi-figure composition of peasants at home eating their meal - The Potato Eaters. The present picture shows the final version of the composition. Van Gogh considered it his most successful painting, and it was the only one of his paintings that he considered worth showing in public and the only one he could imagine taking its place in the tradition of Millet.
The painting shows five people seated round a rough wooden table. The younger woman has a bowl of hot, steaming potatoes in front of her and is serving up portions. The old woman opposite her is pouring barley-malt coffee into cups. The three generations of a peasant family living together under one roof are gathered for this frugal meal. An oil lamp sheds a dim light on the scene, shedding its weak and flickering light on all of them equally.
The picture was harshly criticized. Van Rappard, friend and fellow artist, questioned van Gogh's right to claim comparison with Millet. To answer this, van Gogh began a series of large drawings of men and women digging, cutting wood, gleaning - tasks which Millet had represented in his series of drawings, Labours of the Fields.