/ The Amsterdam Guide
Amsterdam — By Marianne on April 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm
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Vincent and the Potato Eaters

Looking around the dark room, Vincent chose colours to match the room – earth brown, mineral grey and black green paint lay thick on his palette.

The gas lamp hissed and a pool of yellowish red light shone on the five members of De Groot family sitting at the table. Its glare emphasized the coarseness of their faces.

“Mrs De Groot, could you put four cups in front of you and pour the coffee?” Vincent asked.

She adjusted her white cap, one hand rested on her lap, and did as she was told. A shaft of artificial light emphasized her worried look.

Miss De Groot brought in the dish with steaming potatoes. All reached out towards the food; their hands an epitome of manual labour, and honestly-earned food.

Vincent left the room to get some more brushes. When he came back, he rolled his eyes and shouted: “Stop eating all the potatoes. How can I finish my painting!”

These were my thoughts when I stood in front of the Potato Eaters in the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The figures were so intense that I could almost hear their conversation.

Potato Eaters (1885) in Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Peasants gathering for an evening meal was not a new subject for paintings. Jozef Israël, van Gogh’s contemporary, had painted a similar scene. Van Gogh had seen this painting because he described it in one of his letters to his brother. He must have thought about it when painting the Potato Eaters.

Although Van Gogh painted the scene in his studio from memory, the Potato Eaters grew out of numerous portrait studies of peasants. His favourite models were members of the De Groot family, the same people he portrayed in the Potato Eaters. Van Gogh regarded this painting as his first great work of art. He did not draw correctly proportioned hands or heads, but wanted to show a general expression or gesture. The dark setting and pool of light evoked Rembrandt, one of Van Gogh’s favourite artists.

Van Gogh wrote numerous letters discussing and explaining his paintings to his brother Theo. In one of them he wrote: I have tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned. He regarded peasants as primitive people who lived in harmony with nature. His models were raw-faced. Their hands and faces were big, gnarled and earthy.

The Potato Eaters was Van Gogh’s first painting depicting a group of people. The first composition studies – a drawing and a sketch in oils – showed only four persons sitting round the dish of potatoes on the table. When he added a fifth person, the others had to move up because the woman on the right was now too far away to reach the potatoes. That is why she is pouring coffee. Even today, potatoes and coffee is an unusual combination.

Van Gogh regarded the Potato Eaters as a masterpiece and wanted to show that he was on his way to becoming a realistic figure painter. The painting did not impress the critics because they did not think it realistic enough. Van Gogh’s figures had ungainly faces and looked awkward. They were not the type of people a potential buyer would like to hang on his wall. The critics commented on the anatomical anomalies, and they were right. However, Van Gogh did not strive for beauty. He wanted to convey a sense of hardship and survival. Had he painted handsome people and pretty surroundings his message would not have come across.


WHAT: Van Gogh – Potato Eaters, final version
WHERE: Van Gogh Museum, Paulus Potterstaat 7 (map)
OPENING HOURS: daily 10am – 6 pm, Friday until 10pm
ADMISSION: €14, free for Museum card and IAmsterdam Card holders

WHAT: Van Gogh – Potato Eaters, study
WHERE: Kröller-Müler Museum, Houtkampweg 6, Otterlo
OPENING HOURS: 10am – 5pm, closed on Monday

WHAT: Jozef Israel – Peasants Gathered for the Evening Meal
WHERE: Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum), Stadhouderslaan 41, The Hague
OPENING HOURS: 11am – 5pm, closed on Monday
ADMISSION: €10, free for Museum card holders

photo credits: potato eaters in van Gogh museum

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  • Jamie Rhein says:

    I’ve talked about this photo several times since the first time I saw it when I was in college. Shoot! I haven’t seen it since. Need to do something about that. I love your idea of figuring out what family was talking about. Clever!

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