Vincent van Gogh: The Potato Eaters


Vincent and Gauguin disagreed on every last approach to their craft. They fought for their ideals in painting, the meat and drink of their lives, to the last drop of nervous energy. Gauguin had twice Vincent’s brute strength, but Vincent’s lashing excitement left them evenly matched. Gauguin affirmed, “Painting is color, line and form; nothing more. The artist can reproduce the decorative in nature. Painting is abstract, it has no room for the stories you tell and the morals you point out”.  But Vincent had a distinctly different view on this …


“when I paint a sun, I want to make people feel it revolving at a terrific rate of speed. Giving off light and heat waves of tremendous power. When I paint a cornfield, I want people to feel the atoms within the corn pushing out to their final growth and bursting. When I paint an apple, I want people to feel the juice of the apple pushing out against the skin, the seeds at the core striving outward to their own fruition! The fields that push up the corn, and the water that rushes down the ravine, the juice of the grape, and the life of a man as it flows past him, are all one and the same thing. The sole unity in life is the unity of rhythm. A rhythm to which we all dance ; men, apples, ravines, ploughed fields, carts among the corn, houses, horses and the sun. The stuff that is in you, Gauguin, will pound through a grape tomorrow, because you and a grape are one. When I paint a peasant laboring in the field, I want people to feel the peasant flowing down into the soil, just as the corn does, and the soil flowing up into the peasant. I want them to feel the sun pouring into the peasant, into the field, into corn, the plough, and the horses, just as they all pour back into the sun. When you begin to feel the universal rhythm in which everything on earth moves, you begin to understand life. …”  


Vibrancy of life was not always beautiful and pleasant in Van Gogh’s works.  The Potato Eaters, painted in 1885, one of the most famous of his earlier works, captures the dirty, miserable and disturbing life of poor peasants. Vincent’s friend and fellow painter Emile Bernard called it, “a fearful canvas of remarkable ugliness and yet with a disturbing life” (qtd. Callow 201)


“…I have tried to make it clear how those people, eating their potatoes under the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in their dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food. I have wanted to give the impression of quite a different way of living than that of us civilized people. Therefore I am not at all anxious for everyone to like it or to admire it at once. (Letter 404, van Gogh)”