THE POTATO EATERS: Mistake or Masterpiece? Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has mounted a surprising exhibition – a revelatory and moving show of Van Gogh’s early, ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to communicate with the world. The show consists of twenty-four paintings, many drawings and a tiny, wonderful sketchbook, the closest one can ever come to the artist’s thinking.

While many painters of his time portrayed simple people, peasants, weavers, tile painters etc in a romantic and idyllic manner, Van Gogh became obsessed with the plight of the real life peasants around Nuenen close to his parents’ home in the Netherlands.

What I have always seen in these paintings was Van Gogh’s great, even excessive empathy with those who suffered the life of hard labour in the fields. He even painted the nearby church surrounded by the graves of the peasants buried in the same soil which they had worked all their lives until they died, exhausted. Did he, by depicting these subjects, also unintentionally show his own struggle and suffering? Millet, Charles Degroux, Israëls, Breitner and later even Cézanne painted working people, but none of them come near the impact Van Gogh created, even with all the imperfections of composition and his much criticised style of applying the paint. He came too early – while he was rejected, even ridiculed, the German expressionists only a few years later revolutionised art employing similar techniques.

To create The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh laboured long, sketching all the elements for the work in advance, passionately reporting to his brother Theo almost on a daily basis. This picture, he anticipated, would be his great work, his breakthrough. Alas, it was not to be and eventually the colour-swirling bright images of his Arles period overshadowed his early work.

The Potato Eaters was his attempt, as he explained, to show the world what he saw and felt. In the face of the cruel criticism by his friend Anthon van Rappard, he valiantly insisted that he forgave himself for his mistakes and imperfections – he wanted to paint true life, not a “pretty” version of it. Despite his assiduous preparation, where Van Gogh had intended to portray good and honest people with The Potato Eaters, critics saw no further than what they called the rather brutal and crude application of paint. There are problems with the work, it does not flow – the woman in the centre looks at the young man to her right, but he stares straight ahead, apathetic. The woman on the right also looks too tired to notice the man asking for coffee. Thus the five figures huddling in the soot-coated gloom have a rather depressing effect on the viewer. Because of the problems Van Gogh had with the composition of painting a group, he never again attempted it.

The power and energy of the drawings in this exhibition were the absolute highlight for me. The first two pictures brought a lump to my throat. This is a wonderful and bold counterpoint to the much used and commercially exploited images.

The museum has produced a beautiful catalogue/book in which Van Gogh’s early work is paired with photographs of real and very poor Dutch peasants of the period. They indeed looked and suffered exactly as Van Gogh depicted them but at the time the world preferred to look the other way from both the reality and Van Gogh’s depiction of it.   Astrid Burchardt    8th October 2021


The Potato Eaters – Mistake or Masterpiece continues at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until 13th February