“Some see beauty in it, precisely because the characters are so genuine.” –Theo van Gogh
Just a few months before van Gogh moved to Antwerp, with the resulting expansion of his color palette, he painted his first major work, “The Potato Eaters.” It is a work both heavily reminiscent of the earlier Dutch masters, with their dramatic use of light and shadow and somber, earthy colors, and at the same time full of Vincent’s own character, which is evident in every piece he left the world.
One glance at this ultra-famous painting immediately reveals that it is indeed a master we are dealing with here, though at times critics have labeled this beloved work clumsy and even oafish. Five peasant figures around a worn old dinner table sharing a meal of potatoes in the half-dark shed… this, we think, must be how the poor lived at the time. Well, we think afterwards, they don’t look all that unhappy!
Technically, the painting is a bit of wizardry, with its truthful rendering of faces and bodies full of life and character, gnarled, expressive worker’s hands and heavy winter clothing faithfully reproduced. Though there is ample evidence of van Gogh’s later proclivity for thick dark outlines in the figures, stippling for texture in the walls, and even a hint of a halo around the light source, the painting is subtler and much more somber than his later, most famous, and much more vibrant works.
Some call this picture preachy or moralistic. We read into such masterpieces what we will, and probably those critics are influenced by the well-known fact that Vincent’s father was a preacher. Vincent himself tried preaching for a while, but left it to devote himself to a ministry of art as comfort for the frail soul of humanity.
According to art historians and some communications between van Gogh and his brother, Vincent made this painting with an eye toward proving himself a worthy force to be reckoned with in the world of fine artists. Though this canvas is the result of one of van Gogh’s least spontaneous and most belabored paintings, “The Potato Eaters” nevertheless exudes his own scintillating life force.
There is no mistaking van Gogh’s original intent here. The viewer is meant to see and feel the lives of the poor across the world. We reach out to them in spirit, just as the central figure reaches out with a cup, in need or to share, it’s the same. The universal reaction to this piece of art is a gut-level feeling that we’re all in this together, and must help each other if we are to survive.
As with other paintings, van Gogh worked up preliminary sketches before ever attempting his subjects on canvas. A master draughtsman, his drawing ability is the foundation of the consistent believability in his art, whether he employed brushwork akin to masters of the century before him, or the flamboyant expressionistic style he later adopted.
Vincent painted “The Potato Eaters” with the intensity for which he is famous. Though he was trying for a more perfectly realistic and formalized type of masterpiece than he got, it remains one of his most powerful works.