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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)”





The Red Vineyard – Van Gogh …..continued from 

“….Vincent walked through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets. After a long climb, he reached the sun-scorched Place de la Mairie. In order to keep out the maddening sun, the alleys had been made so narrow that Vincent could touch both rows of houses with outstretched fingertips. ….he sat on a block of stone, dangled his legs over a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, lit his pipe, and surveyed the domain of which he had appointed himself lord and master. The town below him flowed down abruptly to the Rhone like a kaleidoscopic waterfall. The roofs of the houses were fitted into each other in an intricate design. The had all been tilled in what was originally red clay, but the burning,incessant sun had baked them to a maze of every colour, from the lightest lemon and delicate shell pink to a biting lavender and earthy loam brown.

..But it was the color of the countryside that made him run a hand over his bewildered eyes. The sky was so intensely blue, such a hard, relentless, profound blue that it was not blue at all ; it was utterly colorless. The green of the fields that stretched below him was the essence of the color green, gone mad. The burning lemon-yellow of the sun, the blood-red of the soil, the crying whiteness of the lone cloud over Montmajour, the ever reborn rose of the orchards….such colourings were incredible. How could he paint them ? How could he ever make anyone believe that they existed, even if he could transfer them to his palette? Lemon, blue, green, red, rose; nature run rampant in five torturing shades of expression…..

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze, and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.


“A good soul and so wise and so full of feeling and so trustful” – That’s how Van Gogh described his friend Joseph-Etienne Roulin. Roulin was wearing his blue postman’s cap. He had soft, inquiring eyes and a long, square, wavy beard which completely covered his neck and collar and came to rest on the dark blue postman’s coat…he was homely in a pathetic sort of way, and his plain peasant’s face seemed out of place in the luxurian Greek beard…Vincent said to Roulin “Imagine an autumn garden, Roulin, with two cypresses, bottle green, shaped like bottles, and three little chestnut trees with tobacco and orange colored leaves. There is a little yew with pale lemon foliage and a violet trunk, and two little bushes, blood red, and scarlet purple leaves.And some sand, some grass, and some blue sky…

arles-18.jpg Arles Now….arles-17.jpg….I will visit this World Heritage City, some day, before my death…arles-12.jpg



Van Gogh, a formidable walker (A Life in Letters)

“….The Arlesian sun smote Vincent between the eyes, and broke him wide open. It was a whirling liquid ball of lemon-yellow fire, shooting across a hard blue sky and filling the air with blinding light. The terrific heat and intense clarity of the air created a new and unfamiliar world….The country around Arles is the most torn, desperately lashed section in the province. The sun burns the brains right out of their heads. The mistral whips the town into a frenzy 200 days out of every year. If you tries to walk the streets, it smashes toy against the buildings. If you are out on the fields, it knocks you down and grinds you into the dirt. It twists your insides until you think you cant bear it another minute. The infernal wind tear out windows, pull up the trees, knock down fences, lash the men and animals in the fields until they would surely fly in pieces..” {The Parisian journalist to Vincent}. …the modern times, we are living in, are running short of such intense and picturesque conversations!

Many of Van Gogh’s best known works were produced in during his stay in Arles. Intoxicated, Inebriated by the bright sun, which relentlessly scorched the top of his head and threw before his eyes the veil of dancing fire to which he had become accustomed, Van Gogh captured the landscape, the people and the small town in exaggerated colors and darker/introspective shades.    

16 October 1888

My Dear Theo

I’m sending you a little sketch at long last to give you at least some idea of the direction my work is taking. Because I feel quite well again today. My eyes are still tired, but I had a new idea all the same and here is the sketch of it. This time it’s simply my bedroom. Only here everything depends on the color, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination. The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest.

The walls are pale violet. The floor – is red tiles.

The wood of the bed and the chair is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheet and the pillows very light lime green.

The blanket scarlet.The window green. The washstand orange, the basin blue.

The doors lilac.And that’s all – nothing of any consequence in this shuttered room.

Portraits on the wall, and a mirror, and a hand towel, and some clothes. The frame – because there is no white in the picture – will be white. This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I have had to take. I shall work on it again all day tomorrow, but you can see how simple the conception is. The shadows and the cast shadows are left out and it is painted in bright flat tints like the Japanese prints. It will form a contrast to, for example, the Tarascon diligence and the Night Café. I am not writing you a long letter because I intend starting very early tomorrow in the cool morning light so as to finish my canvas…..

Ever yours, Vincent. 

The hot Provence sun burnt all the illness out of Vincent and he worked full blaze. But, at times, he struggled with the realisation that how utterly lonely he had been. He fell desperately in love with his yellow house. And he was keen to have Gauguin with him in Arles. He spent a minimum for the bare necessities of life, and sunk all the rest into the house. Each day he had to make a choice between himself and the Yellow House. Should he have meat for dinner, or buy the majolica jug? Should he buy a new pair of shoes, or get that green quilt for Gauguin’s bed? Should he order a pine frame for his new canvas, or buy those rush-bottom chairs? The Yellow house, as you can feel, seemed to have given him a a sense of tranquility, a sense that he was working towards a secure future. Finally, he had a reason, some kind of direction, as he had drifted too much knocked about without rhyme and reason. I,truly, am struck with the way Van Gogh described the furniture in the room, the colors chosen for each furniture item, his conscious effort to make the character of each richer.  His room was not grand, but he ensured that each element in the room suggested rest or sleep in general. He said, “Everything from the chairs to the pictures have character…the beds…give an appearance of solidity, durability and quiet…” As an admirer, as a keen consumer of such a riotous mood of a space, I feel a great sense of energy about the room, which had seen this legendary painter through his volatile tensions and emotional upheavals, and am sure it would have comforted, in some way that’s too difficult to grasp for the rest of the world, would have fulfilled his desire for harmony. It is not a sketch of bedroom, where everything is arranged with a sense of perfection and taste. More than a sense of perfection, the room seemed reflecting a sense of anticipation and someone’s desire to draw comfort from the position of each furniture item. There is a chair positioned next to the head of the bed as if someone would sit there and read out a story. The other chair is placed at the door…I cant fathom the reason behind its position, but I usually do this when I stay in a room that is not mine- could be a guest house or a hotel room. The sketch has two chairs, two doors, two portraits…a pair of almost everything in the room ….he had a co-tenant. Vincent decorated the house with paintings of  Sunflowers, making it as pleasant as he possibly could. Gauguin came in October, 1888. They shared the studio, ate together, went on trips together.

On 23 October 1888, just when Van Gogh was beginning to become annoyed at Gauguin’s reluctance to turn-up, and was thinking of inviting Bernard as an alternative co-tenant for the Yellow House, Gauguin arrived in Arles. Gauguin claimed later than his stay in Arles had seemed to go on for ever, but the notorious association of the two painters in fact lasted for precisely nine weeks.  

01012008962.jpg [c.15 August 1879]

My dear Theo

The hours we spent together have at least assured us that we both are still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and walked with you,  I had a feeling I used to have more often than I do now, namely that life is something good and precious which one should value, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I have been feeling for a long time, because in spite of myself my life has gradually become much less precious, much less important and more a matter of indifference to me, or so it has seemed.

When one lives with others and is bound by feelings of affection, then one realizes that one has a reason for living, that one may not be utterly worthless and expendable, but is perhaps good for something, since we need one another and are journeying together as compagnons de voyage. But our proper sense of self-esteem is also highly dependent upon our relationship with others.

A prisoner who is condemned to solitude, who is prevented from working, will in the long run, especially if the run is too long, suffer from the effects as surely as one who has gone hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I need friendly or affectionate relationships or intimate companionship, and am not made of stone or iron like a pump or a lamppost, and like any man of culture or decency I cannot do without these things and not feel a void, a lack of something – and I tell you all this to let you know how much good your visit has done to me.

[….] A change for the better in my life, should not I long for that, or are there times when one has no need for betterment ? I hope I do become much improved. But precisely because that is what I long for, I am afraid of

 remèdes pires que le mal.   30122007946.jpg

This is a part of the letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in August 1879. In the middle of July 1879 Van Gogh was told that his appointment in Wasmes could not be extended and so he moved to the nearby village of Cuesmes. He read a great deal of Charles Dickens, though drawing had meanwhile became his main interest. In the middle of August Theo paid him a visit and, as after all such meetings between the brothers, Vincent wrote a revealing letter soon afterwards. The letter is about the permanence of the close relationship he now enjoyed with his brother, his “compagnon de voyage”, traveling companion.  21122007936.jpg

I stumbled upon this much-coveted classic book, the must in one’s collection of books, in a tiny yet wonderfully designed book store that is close to my work place. I went to this book store to buy a gift for my colleague, as part of the Christmas Gifting season….a brief visit to the next door book store, unexpectedly, proved a wonderful experience! the old man who takes care of the cash counter in the book store, walked around with me only to recall his evenings spent in the college library, reading Classic authors like Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Dostoevsky, etc in Kannada, the native language. It could be one of those briefest interactions I’ve ever had with a stranger, but indeed was richer due to the humbleness of it, someone who was not that articulate felt like sharing a piece of his life with me, something common had prodded him to recall, a tiny submission, a slight tremble in the hands while gift wrapping the books, ….left a lump in the throat! One need not sweat over major earth-shattering discoveries or cheer about dazzling fireworks of celebration exploding in the skies above, but need to just pause and listen to people, their memories, their desires, their dreams…..Humans, when you pause and listen, can be humbling and meaningful experiences….  


{“Still life : Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh} 

I decided not to romanticize men for sometime.
I want to maintain a safe distance from them. They hurt me. Always. 
I have nothing against them, but do not want to talk about them for a while.
I prefer to sit in the backyard, fix my gaze at the birds hidden in the branches,
busy producing a complex variety of notes.
At times, one bird listens to the other bird’s song and then responds to it.
Interestingly, we do not even pause to catch our breath.
At dawn when there is little breeze, and when most of us are still fast asleep
with our fists against our cheeks, birds sing long and elaborate songs.

I, these days, find comfort in contemplating the Sunflowers.
I saw them standing in a pale cream-colored earthen pot behind the glass
window of a restaurant. A morning before I met with an accident.
I am somewhat familiar with the old man who sits at the cash-counter in the restaurant.
I asked him where does the sunlight paint its hues on the flowers?
He reduced the volume of his radio and smiled at me.
He drew a map that had roads with many turns marked in different colors.
These, he said, take me to a long-winding road, at the end of which are the fields.
He instructed me that I should not mind walking across them in the afternoon sun.
And I should not mind about my feet getting dusty.
To bring back home colors of the fields is certainly not easy a task.

Mornings, Afternoons, Siestas and Evenings are no longer as lifeless as they used to be.
A strip of sunlight streams around and everything becomes still quiet.
A golden-hued revolution unfurls slowly from the corner.
And then it overflows, through the earthen pot, spills over the cloth,
leaves a few stains around, crawls up to me.
For the first time in my life, I forgot to hate my brown skin.

{To Munny -my sister, Mom and Ant}

Sunflowers held a particular fascination for Vincent van Gogh (Dutch,1853-90). During his brief career of 10 yrs as an artist he painted many versions of Sunflowers – he changed the colours of the backdrop, the no. of flowers in the vase etc etc. I have not read much about this legendary artist, but always find self drawn to his paintings,  which, undoubtedly, breathe with certain kind of vibrancy and feverishness that the artist would have been possessed with while working at them. If I take a stroll down memory lane, I still can see a street lined with trees, across which I ran as a 10 yr old little girl shrieking with excitement for being a proud winner of a tiny book about Vincent van Gogh as the second prize for my painting Sunflowers rendered in water-colours…running behind was a little girl who admired me almost with the utmost devotion. Those were the days, both dad and mom used to entertain us with quite a few publications from USSR like Soviet Union. We three girls used to devour all those magazines, story books one after another. Our walks hand-in-hand, just imagine, three little girls in crisp cotton frocks (we were not that rich to wear silk paavadas/parikinis – long skirts with silk brocade or floral edges) to the library are the most cherishable moments in our lives……well, this requires an exclusive  note!       

A glimpse at  Vincent van Gogh’s letters, one can understand how much he was driven by this desire to immortalize simple beautiful moments of his life…..    

My dear Theo,

I write in great haste to tell you that I have had a note from Gauguin, saying that he has not written much, but that he is quite ready to come South as soon as the opportunity arises. They are enjoying themselves very much painting, arguing and fighting with the worthy Englishmen; he speaks well of Bernard’s work, and B. speaks well of Gauguin’s.I have three canvases going – 1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with a light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (size 30 canvas). The last one is therefore light on light, and I hope it will be the best. Probably I shall not stop at that. Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.  I am beginning to like the South more and more. I am working on another study of dusty thistles, with an innumerable swarm of white and yellow butterflies.[Painting lost].

A handshake, I must get back to work.

Ever yours, Vincent

Gauguin said that Bernard has made an album of my sketches and has shown it to him.

At this time, Vincent was 35 year old

Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c.
21 August 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, published in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Publisher: Bulfinch, 1991, number 526.

 Arles, c. 21 August 1888

Dear Sister,I write you these few words in a hurry, as I don't want to postpone telling you how pleased I am that you are in Paris, and I suppose you are going to see a lot of things in the days to come. It is not quite impossible that next year, when I shall be living with my friend Gauguin, you will happen to go as far as the Mediterranean. I am convinced you too will think it beautiful here.What is your opinion of that picture of Gauguin's, the one with those Negresses which Theo has? - I could imagine you might understand it. At the moment I am working on a bunch of twelve sunflowers in a yellow earthenware pot, and I intend to decorate the whole studio with nothing but sunflowers. I hope when you go back to Holland you will take along some study of mine to decorate your room. I am sure you will observe that in summer the sun is a great deal hotter in Paris than at home.I think I should not object to going even a bit farther, I mean where the country is less flat, seeing that in point of fact I never saw a mountain in my life. As soon as Gauguin is here, I suppose we shall do it. But until then I am going to stay in Arles. And after he has come I should like to go on a walking tour with him all over Provence.I am very busy working on my sunflowers, and in reality I have nothing to say.So I had better stop.

Wishing you and Theo truly nice days and fine weather,


*I, as a humble admirer of this legendary artist, am reproducing two letters as written by him.

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