Van Gogh considered this to be his most important painting. Everyone thought it was garbage


The painting Vincent van Gogh was most proud of was the one his fellow artists and friends vilified.

The Potato Eaters represents a family of rural Dutch peasants gathered around a table, their meager meal of coffee and potatoes lit by a solitary lamp.

The Dutch artist thought his ode to rural poverty would be his ticket to the lucrative Parisian art market, but instead he was flatly rejected by his peers, art critics and even his friends. relatives.

The painting was never exhibited publicly during van Gogh‘s lifetime. Instead, it remained unsold, hung in his brother Theo’s Paris apartment. But now it’s the subject of a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam titled The Potato Eaters. Mistake or masterpiece?

“As an art historian, I absolutely consider this to be a masterpiece… Anyone who stands in front of the artwork will see the faces of these peasants and understand what van Gogh wanted to do with this painting, “said Bregje Gerritse, curator of the exhibition. As it happens host Carol Off.

“At the same time, I also understand his criticisms at the time, because, of course, compared to what was normal [then], it’s a very, very dark painting and van Gogh makes some mistakes. He is not yet able to portray these characters in a very convincing way. “

Gerritse’s exhibition presents The Potato Eaters alongside some fifty letters and drawings related to the painting, including sketches from the last days of the artist’s life, as he set out to recreate it from scratch.

“Surely such work was not seriously planned?

Van Gogh created The Potato Eaters in the hope of submitting it to a prestigious art fair in Paris, said Gerritse. The stakes were high. To make the cut, he would have to prove his technical skills as a painter and produce nothing less than a masterpiece.

But when he unveiled the painting in 1885, he was almost universally shattered.

“He was really hoping to break into and enter the art market – but it was the opposite,” Gerritse said.

Some of the harshest criticism came from van Gogh’s friend and fellow painter, Anthon van Rappard, who criticized what he considered sloppy work that left a character with only “half his nose” and a another with an arm “one meter too short”.

“Surely such work was not seriously planned? he wrote to van Gogh in a letter, which is presented in the exhibition. “Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly.

This letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo features a sketch of Dutch peasants digging potatoes. This, along with 50 other letters and drawings related to van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, are on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam between October 9, 2021 and February 13, 2022. (Vincent van Gogh Foundation / Van Gogh Museum)

The Parisian artistic community rejected the painting, in part because its dullness contrasted sharply with the vibrant and colorful Impressionism that was in vogue at the time, Gerritse said.

Moreover, she said, van Gogh avoided the pursuit of technical perfection and instead focused on conveying his main message “about the raw, honest and hard-working life of these peasants.”

He defends the work in one of his letters, writing: “Anyone who prefers to see bland and pretty peasants can move on. For my part, I am convinced that in the long run it gives better results to paint them in their coarseness to introduce the conventional smoothness. “

In 1887 he wrote to his sister that The Potato Eaters was one of the best things he ever did.

“So he’s really supporting him,” Gerritse said.

2nd chance ever

During the last five years of his life, van Gogh suffered from serious mental health problems, until he cut his ear in 1888. Subsequently, he admitted to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in France.

This is where he was when he wrote to his brother Theo that he wanted to try a second time. The Potato Eaters. Both his style and technique had evolved considerably since his first attempt. Influenced by Impressionism, he learned to paint in bright, bold colors, and he also mastered technical skills that eluded him early on.

“He hasn’t been home in the North or the Netherlands for five years, and he really wants to be home and think about his hometown,” Gerritse said.

“It was at that time that he made several drawings, in fact, of peasants sitting on the table – and you can see coffee, as well as potatoes, and a lot of references to The Potato Eaters. “

Van Gogh spent his last years preparing to recreate The Potato Eaters. His preparatory sketches – including that of 1890, entitled Interior with Five Figures Around a Table – are on display at the Van Gogh Museum. (Vincent van Gogh Foundation / Van Gogh Museum)

But before he could complete his remake, van Gogh committed suicide on July 19, 1890.

Despite his efforts to recreate the painting, Gerritse says van Gogh continued to defend the basic messages contained in the original.

“I actually think his idea of ​​remaking the painting shows once again how important the subject matter was to him,” Gerritse said. “That certainly doesn’t mean he wasn’t happy with the painting. In fact, it was the other way around.”

The Potato Eaters. Mistake or masterpiece? open on October 9 and until February 13, 2022.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview conducted by Sarah Cooper.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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