Gallery – Potato Eaters

Potato Eaters, 1885

Painted in the spring of 1885, Potato Eaters represents a family of peasants at their meager evening meal: potatoes washed down with cups of chicory, a poor person’s substitute for coffee. Van Gogh intended it as a showpiece to demonstrate that he could make an ambitious multi-figure scene, and he spent several months making sketches leading up to the final work. Intentionally using colors of the soil, especially the dusky brown of unpeeled potatoes, the painter sought to equate the peasants’ humble piety and goodness with their labor as tillers of the land.

While the palette of somber earth tones is typical of the artist’s work from this early period (1883–1885), the picture’s extreme darkness also reminds us that a single oil lamp was the room’s only source of light.

Despite re-working the painting again and again, Van Gogh’s figures remained filled with mistakes. The artist was pleased with the result, however, and believed that the peasants should be coarse in appearance, with their grotesque, bony hands, stiff postures, and worn features expressing the harsh reality of their daily existence. At the time, Vincent considered Potato Eaters to be his masterpiece, a scene of deep communion in the vein of Rembrandt’s most touching, spiritual pictures. Unfortunately, this was not the sense others got from it.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, Potato Eaters, 1885. Oil on canvas, 32.3 x 44.9 in. (82 x 114 cm.) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)/Bridgeman Images.