The Potato Eaters by Van Gogh: Analysis and Meaning

The Potato Eaters by VIncent Van Gogh

The Potato Eaters is perhaps the first painting that Van Gogh genuinely loved with all his heart. This painting was a testament to the efforts of Van Gogh and his desire to improve in his field, creating something challenging to reach the next level. And it was a painstakingly difficult task to paint this painting. So what makes The Potato Eaters so famous and why does it deserve all the praise? Here’s the analysis of this painting. 

About the painting, The Potato Eaters

The Potato Eaters is Van Gogh’s first masterpiece. Unfortunately, at the time of its completion, it was only appreciated by the painter because of the effort he put in. Van Gogh completed this painting in 1885, five years prior to finishing his most famous work; The Starry Night. 

The medium of this painting is oil on canvas, as most of Van Gogh’s paintings are. The painting was made during the Realism-Modern Art period. But the painting style of The Potato Eaters is between Realism and Expressionism, owing to the focus on the haggard expression of the peasants.

The painting was not received well. Owing to the dull colors, distorted and “ugly” subjects, and the portrayal of a common peasant family in a small room made this painting not very appealing for the viewers. But Van Gogh considered this to be his most ambitious work. As for the dark and dull tones, the depressive nature of this painting was intended. More on that in the analysis, let’s look at some facts about this painting. 

The Potato Eaters was auctioned last in 1987 in London and at that time, it was valued at $39.9 US. Adjusting the inflation, at today’s rates, the painting is worth around $91 million US. That sure is a hefty price for some poor potato eaters. Apart from the price, another version of this painting was stolen but was recovered.

This might come as a surprise, but the subject of this painting, the poor peasants are a real family. The family in this painting is the De Groot Van-Rooij family and Van Gogh painted more than 20 studies of Gordina de Groot, the young lady in this painting. The house is also the house of the same family.

Analysis and Meaning of The Potato Eaters

There’s a lot to unpack in this painting. The reason why Van Gogh loved this painting so much was that how expressive it was, showing everything the artist intended to show, making the viewers feel what the subjects were feeling. 

The scene is of a poor, labor-class family who is clearly not very fruitful economically. The room is dimly lit with just one source of light that hangs above the table. Five people are sitting at the table, four adults and a child. But there’s something odd about their faces, their body, and their features…

The rough and uneven facial features, the coarse hands with calluses shows the hardworking nature of these people. Van Gogh wanted to exaggerate the features, making it stand out, making it the subject of the painting. The expression and the features are the reasons why this painting stands out.

Coming to the colors of The Potato Eaters, the choice of the dull and dark color palette was necessary for the atmosphere of the scene. It also works out well with the message of this painting. There’s a dirt brown color used for the pants of the male subject. The use of grey undertones with green and blue brings down the vibrance of the colors drastically, giving the room a drab and dark ambiance.

Message and interpretation 

Interpreting a painting is a difficult and often faulty process. What the artist intended to show is only known to the artist. Even that changes in the process of painting. The interpretation that we have come up with will try to remain as close to what Van Gogh may have intended, but never the same.

The Potato Eaters shows us two contrasting images or scenes; one is where we see these workers with their coarse features, hardened by manual work. The other scene is this moment of eating potatoes, not something extravagant, yet a moment of joy for them. The table is well lit with the overhanging lamp, there’s plenty of potatoes and something to drink. The whole family has gathered and although the other parts of the house are bathed in darkness, the table is bright.

These are the two contrasting images separated by light and darkness. The subjects of the painting live a very hard life, yet at this moment when they eat together, there is a sense of relief, a moment of joy. Those cheap and staple potatoes bring more than just-food. Seeing the background all dark with the window showing the night, the table starts feeling warm and bright.

This painting is significant in the career of Van Gogh. When you think of Van Gogh as an artist, or a simple Google search will bring paintings such as The Starry Night or Almond Blossom. This is perhaps the most famous painting by Van Gogh where he made the humans and their expressions the subject of the painting. 

After watching these workers for months, Van Gogh painted this painting, trying to capture the essence of being someone from these families. At the time it was painted, it was an “ugly eye-sore” when placed together with other “beautiful” paintings of romanticized scenes. But this painting was true, this painting communicates emotions, not of the painter, but the subjects. And perhaps that is the reason why people found it to be sad and depressing. 

This painting works not because it makes you feel good or offers you a glimpse of something scenic via the eyes of the painter. This painting works because it takes you to this dark house, eliminating the feel of experiencing this second hand. It is like a window through which you peer into the house of this poor family, sadly enjoying the moment of joy, watching it get over, and fearing to get back to their daily struggle again so that they can have this very moment again.

This concludes the article. But it shouldn’t be the end of your reading. Here are some related articles about Van Gogh that you’ll love to read. Check them out: