EEVERYONE THINKS they know Vincent van Gogh until they see “The Potato Eaters” (photo). Painted in the Netherlands in 1885, his tone is as distant as one might imagine from the flaming sunflowers of his later work in the south of France. Five members of a farm household huddle around the table, sharing a meal of potatoes and coffee. The vibe is cramped, the colors are mostly muted greens and browns. Outside the lamp’s circle of light, darkness sinks. It was one of the few group scenes he painted, and almost anyone who had seen it in her lifetime hated it. Van Gogh told his sister it was the best thing he had ever done.
This autumn, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam made it the center of an exhibition, under the heading “Error or masterpiece? The title is a bit teasing, but Bregje Gerritse, who organized the show, said viewers should take the matter seriously. The painting is marred by errors: funny torsos, looks that do not intersect. Some may be intentional, but Van Gogh admitted that others were nonsense. Still, he thought his detractors hadn’t understood. With “The Potato Eaters” he searched for a new authenticity, an appreciation for the misshapen beauty that refused to romanticize his subjects.
It started with a deadline. Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, an art dealer in Paris, wrote in February 1885 to ask him if he had anything for the salon that year. Vincent lived in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands, attracting local farmers. He had nothing suitable, but threw himself into the project. Van Gogh greatly admired Jean-François Millet’s depictions of rural life and was influenced by Jozef Israels, a Dutch painter of working-class scenes. He was also studying color theory and physiognomy, the pseudoscience of reading character from facial structure. Most importantly, he was obsessed with farmers. He wanted to capture their raw bodies and their honest relationship with the land.
His drawings of the time, the jagged lines already recognizable to his, are full of stooped shoulders and angular tree branches. He was looking for “rough, flat faces with a low forehead and thick lips.” He seems frozen by the protruding jaw of a model. When the skin tones of his first run on “The Potato Eaters” got too light, he switched to “soapy” hues, “the color of a good dusty potato, unpeeled of course”.
The Dutch have a genius for this sort of thing: celebrating the ordinary, often with a cutting edge challenge. You can look back from Van Gogh to the old masters, with their painstaking attention to cheese, pets, and drinking games to the detriment of gods and saints. This is what Pieter Bruegel shows in his “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”: the peasant going about his plowing, unperturbed by tragedy. You can also look to the future of Van Gogh in the simple and repetitive forms of Piet Mondrian or, in architecture, the geometric concrete of Rem Koolhaas.
In cinema, the gift of the Netherlands is for documentaries rather than fiction. On television, it is for long interviews and reality shows, where the Dutch series “Big Brother” played a pioneering role. One of the innovators was Theo van Gogh, the artist’s great-grandnephew, a provocative reality-TV innovator who was assassinated by an Islamist extremist in 2004. The best Dutch literature swims in everyday boredom, from “The Evenings” (1947), Gerard Reve’s novel about post-war queer boredom, to ” The Discomfort of Evening ”(2020), Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s novel about queer millennial boredom. “The Potato Eaters” could have been used as a cover illustration for this recent book, which opens with a meal on a poor Christian farm in Brabant some 115 years later.
The painting ended up hanging above the fireplace of Van Gogh’s brother. Anton van Rappard, a fellow painter, criticized his formal shortcomings so harshly that Van Gogh’s friendship with him was never restored. The following year he moved to France and discovered the Impressionists, and his palette exploded in the familiar kaleidoscope of his later work. Although Van Gogh may not have wanted it, this contrast makes “The Potato Eaters” feel like a judgment on the cramped moralism of Dutch society. The refreshing Dutch embrace of the ordinary is accompanied by a sometimes oppressive conformism. The country’s unofficial slogan is normal doe: “Do not be selfish, act normally”. Yet his greatest geniuses, including Van Gogh, were the ones who couldn’t. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Délices de la terre”