It was the year 1885 when a young aspiring Dutch artist called Vincent van Gogh completed his first-ever masterpiece The Potato Eaters. Using oil on canvas, he was thrilled about completing this painting and was sure this would help him break into the Parisian market and make him famous. Little did he know that his artwork would be so heavily criticised and disliked by his peers that instead of getting sold, it would become a part of Van Gogh’s family and then the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation and it would be hundreds of years before anyone would truly appreciate this painting but by then the tortured Dutch genius would not be able to witness any of it. The painting currently hangs in Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and could be considered priceless; however, its estimated worth would be in the millions of dollars. The Potato Eaters marked a turning point in Van Gogh’s artistic life and is now considered his first true masterpiece. But why did Van Gogh decide to paint it? Was it a mistake leading to his failure as an artist?
Van Gogh’s ‘failed’ masterpiece
Vincent van Gogh, like any other artist, hoped to learn and grow more in his career. Due to poverty, he would reuse canvas and practice his portraits on the back of the canvas cloth. Another aspect in which he wanted to gain more experience was figure painting. He had very little experience painting full-length paintings and during that time peasants eating meals was a popular theme in the Dutch market. He created many preliminary studies for The Potato Eaters and visited the de Groot cottage repeatedly to capture the family as they ate their evening meal. He made several sketches of a spoon rack, a chunk of bread, a hand on a teapot and so much more to prepare for the grand masterpiece. The final result shows five people gathered together around a table, eating potatoes and drinking coffee. He chose to paint the features in earth tones, which according to him were “something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course” Even though painting peasants was the trend back then, Van Gogh did not idealize peasant life. Perhaps because he faced such difficulties in life, he wanted to convey through his artwork that the family members have “have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish … that they have thus honestly earned their food.” The five people he painted were quite close to his heart. He had befriended them long before he chose to paint them and he continued to think about the family even after he left Nuenen, The Netherlands. He used to write to his sister from Paris asking her about their health and wellness.
The criticism and the unfinished dream
As stated in his letters to his friends and brother, Van Gogh was very pleased with his work. He wanted to depict peasants as they really were and he deliberately chose coarse and ugly models, thinking that they would be natural and unspoiled in his finished work. And then his world came crashing down when his peers negatively responded to his work. His friend van Rappard displayed critical disdain for the painting’s technical execution. “[W]hy may that man on the right not have a knee or a belly or lungs?” he admonished “Or are they in his back? And why must his arm be a meter too short? And why must he lack half of his nose? … Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly.” Van Gogh responded to his friend and defended the painting saying he missed the essence of the painting “What I’m trying to get with it is to be able to draw not a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head but the overall expression.” No matter how much Van Gogh tried to explain his artwork to the world, no one got it. The Potato Eaters continued to haunt Van Gogh even after he moved to France. In April 1889, following a mental health crisis, he got admitted to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France. It is during this confinement that he painted The Starry Night – which he considered a big failure but the world loved it. He wanted to paint another version of The Potato Eaters from his memory. He started preparing a few sketches for it but sadly no other version of it was made. Before he could try to prove his worth again to his peers, his mental illness took over and he allegedly shot himself in the chest. Today, The Potato Eaters is considered one of his most majestic works – a vindication of his claim that the painting was “the best thing I did.”
Theft and secrets
The tortured Dutch genius was a gem that was not truly discovered till after his death. Millions of people flock to see this painting every year and just like The Mona Lisa, this painting has been subject to several theft attempts. In 1988, thieves stole the early version of The Potato Eaters, the Weaver’s Interior, and Dried Sunflowers from the Kröller-Müller Museum to gain a $2.5 million ransom. However, the police managed to recover the paintings in time without paying the ransom amount. And then in 1991 the Vincent van Gogh National Museum was robbed of twenty major paintings including the final version of The Potato Eaters. However, the getaway car suffered a blown tire, and the thieves were forced to flee, leaving the paintings. The artworks were discovered after 35 minutes.
Money is a driving factor behind the robberies but for art lovers who truly appreciate Van Gogh’s work, it is the story behind the art that matters. It is little known that Van Gogh created three surviving studies of The Potato Eaters before his final artwork. He even printed a lithograph of the work, which he sent to his brother Theo in Paris, hoping for feedback. On top of that, Van Gogh painted 20 or more studies of Gordina de Groot, the young woman also pictured in The Potato Eaters family group. Before Van Gogh started painting The Potato Eaters he moved in with his parents in Nuenen in Brabant, where he produced more than a hundred portrait studies of local farm labourers. He was after all a hard worker who wanted to capture the hard work of labourers who struggle to put bread on their table.
Next up in Behind the Art: Is Garçon à la pipe (Boy with a Pipe), 1905 by Pablo Picasso worth $104,168,000? What significance does it hold?