The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh: History, Meaning and Technique

Vincent Van Gogh 1853-1890
The Potato Eaters 1885


The Potato Eaters is considered to be Vincent Van Gogh's first great work. At the time of its creation, Van Gogh had started painting and had not yet mastered the techniques that would posthumously make him famous.

Van Gogh was a painter whose work had a major influence in 20th century art. Its colors and emotional content are what made Vincent Van Gogh’s work famous. The artist suffered from a lifetime of anxiety and bouts of mental illness: he died at the young age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Van Gogh's interest in art started early. He drew as a child. He did not begin painting until his late twenties. He completed his best-known work during his last two years of his life. In a decade, he produced more than 2,000 works of art: 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. His subjects included self portraits, landscapes, portraits and paintings of people and nature.

Vincent Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters, is the culmination of several years of painting peasants. In August 1885, this work was exhibited for the first time: in the window of a dealer in The Hague. The painting consists of five people sitting around a table eating potatoes; four of them are females and one male.

Although the piece is lit in darkness, the mixed emotions in the faces of the people shine. These people are so real that one can imagine the conversation around the table. The Potato Eaters is replete with realistic details: The rafters in the back, the lines forming a ruddy window in the darkness, the picture frame on the wall, the platter of potatoes, the skeletal fingers stretched out to grab them, the woman pouring coffee, the large rectangular column that is holding the shack up, and the weathered edges of the table.

Van Gogh wanted to depict peasants as they were. He deliberately chose ugly models: they would be more natural. Fortunately, there is a wealth of written correspondence left behind by Van Gogh, and as he wrote to his sister he spoke about the subjects of the Potato Eaters.

Van Gogh had planned the painting of The Potato Eaters well in advance, and was inspired to create a multiple person painting in 1883. After completing sketches and test paintings, Van Gogh sent reversed lithograph prints to art dealers of and one of colleague. Van Gogh was so confident; he began to advertise the Potato Eaters before he had even begun painting it.

The Potato Eaters, like all of Van Gogh’s work, was not successful. Nor was it displayed in the Salon as Van Gogh had wanted. Today, the painting has reached great fame and is considered his first masterpiece, which means Vincent Van Gogh has finally achieved his intention.

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