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The Potato Eaters

Painting, Oil on Canvas on panel

Nuenen, The Netherlands: April, 1885


All book hounds must know the humdrum boredom of looking over rows of books in bazaars, used bookshops and thrift stores and not finding what they are looking for, even if they don’t know what it is that they are looking for; it is the uneventful norm. They must also know the immediate shock of recognition – accompanied by an intake of breath and a raised heartbeat – when they come across a book that does interest them – it makes all the futile searching worthwhile and certainly gives you something to look forward to as you settle into your latest acquisition, satiated for the time being.

I experienced this a few weeks ago when my eyes fell upon the title Dear Theo, The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. I had not thought of Van Gogh as being a writer and indeed his ‘autobiography’ turned out to be a distillation of his letters to his brother Theo. They apparently ran to a few thousand pages and Irving and Jean Stone, who edited this book, have done a fine job of weaving excerpts from his letters into an autobiographical tale that flows coherently throughout his career, from his beginnings in Holland and England (at which time he was considering a career as a preacher, like his father and grandfather) through his hesitant decision to become an artist and finally to the period when he was painting his masterpieces in the south of France. This only covers a period of 20 years for, as we all know, Vincent’s career was a short one.

It soon becomes apparent that he would never have had any success as an artist at all had it not been for his brother Theo who supplied him with a regular allowance in order to support him in the daily necessities of life as well as the, not insubstantial, costs for an artist’s materials – paints and canvases, brushes and frames, models and a place to lay his head.

It is painful to read his words lamenting his poverty and that his funds have run out and how he must wait for the next instalment before continuing his work; he would often spend the last of it on paints or canvas and neglect his health by forgoing food so that he could continue to pursue his work. He was determined and logical in this pursuit – he continued for a long time to draw while others urged him to pass on to painting – he was insistent that he would train his “draughtsman’s fist” to draw on its own, as if by a second nature, before he would graduate to paint when he would “draw with the brush”. He would not attempt to paint with oils until he had served a self-appointed apprenticeship learning to paint with watercolours.

Other artists and experienced teachers were sometimes leery of both him and his style – not so much I think, as reputed, by his personality but perhaps by his facility, which seemed, for Vincent, to come easily, and was only hard-won by them – a resentful jealousy to which they could not always admit in light of his drawings. Vincent longed to learn at the feet of an accomplished artist but had little luck in this respect; perhaps for the better as in doing for himself he created for himself a style and interpretation that we still recognize today as his alone. He felt that he was unfairly criticized for working too quickly and advised Theo in one of his letters that if someone accused him of that he should suggest that perhaps he had looked at the picture too quickly.

Irving Stone writes in his short preface to the book that he feels that Vincent was “as great a writer and philosopher as he was a painter” and if that seems somewhat exaggerated it is perhaps not – and, if so, only because Vincent became such an artistic giant with his brush.

If you doubt it, consider this selection from his musings:

It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all the artists, poets, musicians, painters are unfortunate in material things – the happy ones as well. Guy de Maupassant is a fresh proof of it. That brings up the eternal question: is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side of death we see one hemisphere only?

Painters – to take them only – dead and buried, speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations in their work. Is that all, or is there more besides? In a painter’s life death is not perhaps the hardest thing there is.

For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it; but to look at the stars always makes me dream as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this: that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train. So it seems to me possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis, and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses, and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

I feel more and more that we must not judge God on the basis of this world; it’s a study that didn’t come off. What can you do, in a study that has gone wrong, if you are fond of the artist? You do not find much to criticize; you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for something better. It is only a master who can make such a muddle, and perhaps that is the best consolation we have out of it, since then we have a right to hope that we’ll see the same creative hand get even with itself. And this life of ours, so much criticized, and for such good and even exalted reasons – we must not take it for anything but what it is, and go on hoping that in some other life we’ll see a better thing than this.

Reading this book (I’m almost finished) has been an inspiration for me and I think that it would be so for most people; artists in particular would benefit from Vincent’s thoughts on the technical aspects of drawing and painting – composition, form, colour etc. The rest of us would benefit from the insight that we receive into Vincent’s mind through his eloquent reflections on life and art. Everyone has heard of Vincent Van Gogh but few of us have any familiarity with the man himself. This book is a delightful introduction to the man who’s art has fascinated for over a century and an enlightening glimpse into the mind of a genius.

Following is an excerpt from Vincent’s story, around the end of 1883, when he had returned from a few years of drawing and painting on the expansive dunes of Drenthe, Holland, somewhat dispirited, to live with his parents so that he could continue his painting. In it he discusses with Theo a new canvas that he is working on – ‘The Potato Eaters’ – later to become an icon in the world of art. We’ll follow that up in the next post with a later excerpt from his time in Arles, in the south of France (as far as I have gotten in the book) and his visit by Gauguin. Finally we will follow with a post about an online resource for the letters of Vincent Van Gogh that can make them accessible, in their entirety and with much additional material to anyone with an internet connection; I’ve seldom been more impressed with an online presentation.

Vincent’s artwork in these posts comes from Van Gogh Gallery, a wonderful site with a good representation of his work. From the home page, upper left under The Works, click on one of Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors or Sketches – on the page that opens, click on Click here for the Catalog of Van Gogh … to be taken to a page of all the works of that type laid out in chronological order. Images are rendered 750px × 563px.

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset

Painting, Oil on Canvas

Nuenen, The Netherlands: October, 1884


Vincent at Neunen

Excerpted from Dear Theo, The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh

Edited by Irving and Jean Stone

Grove press 1960 / Doubleday 1937, paperback 572 pp. 51/4 x 8″

Book III: Sept. 1883-March 1886

I am still greatly under the impression of what has happened.

Indeed, those were days we shall not easily forget. And yet the total impression was not terrible, only solemn. Life is not long for anybody, and the question is only to make something of it.

I felt as you did when you wrote that you could not work the first days. Today I painted better again; I have worked on a still-life with honesty; in the foreground are Father’s tobacco pouch and his pipe. If you care to have it, you may, and welcome.

As Father’s death has caused you much extra expense, I have thought that in case you should not be able to give me the extra allowance which I used to receive every spring and summer, and which I cannot do without, don’t you think it would be fair if I received a sum of, for instance, two hundred guilders as my share in the inheritance, which for the rest I gladly leave to the younger ones, and will be able to do so if you continue to help me? In fact I do not consider it as if I left them my share, but that it is you who make it possible for them to get my part.

Every year about this time I have been able to payoff my debts and buy some new painting materials. This year I have painted so much the last months that I really need them more than ever. Neither in February nor in March did I say a word about it. But they have been no easy months for me.

I am on good terms with Mother and the sisters; yet I think I shall go and live in the studio. I see that it is better so, for in the long run it would hardly be possible to live together; for this I can neither blame them nor myself, but rather the incongruity of ideas between persons who want to keep a certain rank and a peasant painter who does not think of such things.

It makes things still more complicated for me, but I am quite sure that it is better for the others. I shall move about the first of May. Probably Mother will go next year to Leyden; then I shall be the only one of us staying in Brabant. And it does not seem at all improbable that I shall stay here for the rest of my days.

When I call myself a peasant-painter, that is a real fact and it will become clearer and clearer to you in the future. I feel at home in the country, and it has not been in vain that I spent so many evenings with the miners, and peat diggers, and weavers, and peasants, musing by the fire – unless I was too hard at work for musing. By witnessing peasant life continually, at all hours of the day, I have become so absorbed in it that I hardly ever think of anything else. In fact I have no other wish than to live deep, deep in the heart of the country, and to paint rural life. I feel that my work lies there, so I shall keep my hand to the plough and cut my furrow steadily.

I believe you think differently about it, that you would prefer my taking another course. When you were here I did not want to talk about it, or contradict you. You said that I should not always stay here any more than Mauve had always stayed at Bloemendaal; it may be true, but I myself see no good in moving: here one can work more, and has fewer expenses. I sometimes think that you place more value on what can be done in the city, while I, on the other hand, think it more important to live in the very midst of what one paints.

I shall have a hard time of it yet before I can make people accept my pictures, but I am not going to let myself be discouraged. I remember what I once read of Delacroix, how seventeen pictures of his were refused. What damned brave fellows they were, those pioneers! But the battle must be carried on even in the present, and for all the little I may be worth I shall carry on my own fight.

You write that the indifference towards the work of Millet is not encouraging, neither for the artists nor for those who have to sell the pictures. Millet himself has felt and known this. You say: How is it that when people from the city paint peasants, their figures, splendidly painted though they may be, involuntarily remind one of the suburbs of Paris? Is not this because the painters personally have not entered deeply enough into the spirit of peasant life? De Groux painted real peasants; he is one of the good masters in the style of Millet. Though he is not acknowledged by the public at large, and remains in the background like Daumier, like Tassaert, there are people, for instance Mellery, who at present are painting in his style. As to general sympathy, years ago I read in Renan that he who wants to accomplish something really good or useful must not count on the approval or appreciation of the public in general, but, on the contrary, can only expect that perhaps a very few hearts will sympathize and take part in it.

As far as I am concerned, I am firmly convinced that there are a few people who, having been drawn into the city and kept in bonds there, yet retain unfading impressions of the country, and remain all their lives homesick for the fields and the peasants. I remember how I used to walk for hours in the city, past the show windows, to get a glimpse of some bit of the country, never mind what.

And so, Theo, I hope we shall continue from both sides what we started anew. While toiling on more important compositions, I send you the studies straightway as they come from the cottages. Between now and the time you are coming again this summer there are three months. If I work hard every day, I can have by that time twenty studies for you, and twenty more to take to Antwerp some day, if you like.

Do not let the time pass in vain; help me to work as much as possible. Let us paint as much as we can and be productive, and be ourselves, with all our faults and qualities. I say us because the money from you, which costs you trouble enough to procure for me, gives you the right when there is some good in my work to consider half of it your own creation. From now on keep all the studies together. I do not want to sign any of them yet, for I do not wish them to circulate as pictures. But some day we shall find somebody who wants to make a collection of studies. I hope that by and by they will give you new courage.

This week I started a composition of peasants around a dish of potatoes in the evening. I just came home from this cottage, and have been working at it by lamplight. I have been on it for three days continually, from morning till night; Saturday night the paint got into a condition which forbade all further work until it had become quite dry.

I made this sketch on a rather large canvas. I am sure C. M. would find fault with the drawing. Do you know what is a positive argument against that? That the beautiful effects of light in nature demand a very quick hand in drawing. I know quite well that the great masters knew both how to elaborate in the finishing, and how at the same time to keep a subject full of life. But that is certainly beyond my power for the present. As far as I have got now, however, I see a chance of giving a true impression of what I see; not always literally exact, rather never exact, for one sees nature through one’s own temperament. And what I am trying to acquire is not to draw a hand, but the gesture; not with mathematical correctness a head, but the expression – for example, when a digger looks up and sniffs the wind or speaks. In short, life.

Of the sketch of the potato-eaters I painted in the cottage I should like to make, with a few alterations, a definite picture. This may prove to be one which Portier could show, or which we could send to an exhibition. I was very glad to hear Portier’s opinion of my work; that he found ‘personality’ in it. I try more and more to be myself, caring relatively little whether people approve or disapprove. I don’t mean to say that I should not care if Mr. Portier stuck to his good opinion; on the contrary, I shall try to make things which strengthen him in it.

I have now made a lithograph of this sketch of the potato-eaters. Please give Mr. Portier as many copies as he wants. It is different from lamplights by Dou or van Schendel; it is perhaps not superfluous to point out to him how one of the most beautiful things of the painters of this country has been the painting of black which yet has light in it.

There is a school, I believe, of Impressionists; but I know very little about it. I do know who are the original and most important masters, around whom, as round an axis, the landscape and peasant painters will turn: Delacroix, Corot, Millet, and the rest. I mean there are, rather than persons, rules or principles or fundamental truths for drawing, as well as for colour, upon which one falls back when one finds out an actual truth. So I want to tell Portier my decided belief in Eugene Delacroix and the people of that time.

How typical is that saying about the figures of Millet: ‘Son paysan semble peint avec la terre qu’il ensemence!’ How exact and how true! And how important it is to know how to mix on the palette those colours which have no name, and yet are the real foundation of everything. Art dealers speak so vaguely and arbitrarily about it.

I cannot advise you strongly enough to study for yourself the various theories of Delacroix about colour. Though I am not up to date and have been outside the world of art so long – put outside because of my wooden shoes – the important thing remains: that in your capacity of expert, you as well as the painters shall know certain rules of colour and perspective. Excuse me, but what I say is true: that this will be of practical use to you, and will raise you above the common rank of art dealers.

I, too, believe that if Henri Pille had had to decide, ‘Le Chat Noir’ would perhaps not have refused this sketch. I believe the fuller of sentiment a thing one makes is, and the truer to nature, the more it is criticized and the more animosity it raises. But in the end it gets the better of criticism. The ‘Potato-Eaters’ is at least a subject which I have felt. I could point out its weak points, and some outright errors; but there is certain life in it, perhaps more than in some pictures that are absolutely faultless.

In order to paint rural life one must be master of so many things. On the other hand, I don’t know anything at which one works with so much calm, in the sense of serenity, however much struggle one may have in material things. I mean painting is a home; one does not feel homesickness, and I was sick of the boredom of civilization. One is happier – one feels that at least one is really alive.

And it is a good thing in winter to be deep in the snow, in the autumn deep in the yellow leaves, in summer among the ripe corn, in spring amid the grass; it is a good thing to be always with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with a big sky overhead, in winter by the fireside, and to feel that it has always been and will always be so. One may sleep on straw, eat black bread – well, one will be only the healthier for it.

Today I took a splendid walk of some hours. I do not say that in Brittany, or at Katwijk, or in the Borinage, nature is not more striking still, and more dramatic; but after all, the moors and the villages here are very, very beautiful too.

I am working at the ‘Potato-Eaters’ again. I have painted new studies of the heads, and especially the hands are greatly altered. I wonder what Portier will say about it when it is finished. I shall not send it unless I know for sure there is something in it. But I am getting on with it, and I think there are quite other things in it than you ever can have seen in my work – at least so distinctly. I mean especially the life. Perhaps you will now find in it what you wrote some time ago; that though it is personal, yet it will remind you of other painters – with a certain family likeness.

I should have liked to send you the picture on your birthday. Though the actual picture has been painted in a relatively short time, it has taken a whole winter of painting study heads and hands. And as to the few days in which I have painted it, it has been a regular battle, but one for which I feel great animation.

I have tried to make it clear how these people, eating their potatoes under the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish; and so the painting speaks of manual labour, and how they have honestly earned their food. I 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.

All winter long I have had in hand the threads of this fabric, and have searched for a definite pattern; and though it has taken on a rough, coarse aspect, nevertheless the threads have been selected carefully and according to certain rules. And it may prove to be a real peasant picture. I know it is.

But he who prefers to see the peasants in their Sunday best may do as he likes. I for my part am convinced that I get better results by painting them in their roughness than by giving them a conventional charm. I think a peasant girl is beautiful in her dusty and patched blue petticoat and bodice, which gets the most delicate hues from weather, wind, and sun. But if she puts on a lady’s dress she loses her typical charm. A peasant in his fustian clothes in the fields is more typical than when he goes to church on Sunday in a kind of dress coat.

In the same way it would be wrong, I think, to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant picture smells of bacon smoke, potato steam, all right, that’s not unhealthy; if a stable smells of dung, that belongs to a stable; if the field has an odour of ripe corn or potatoes, or of guano or manure, that’s healthy, especially for people from the city. Such pictures may teach them something. To paint peasant life is a serious thing, and I should reproach myself if I did not try to make pictures which raise serious thoughts in those who think seriously about art and about life. I see in the ‘Salon’ number so many pictures which as to technique are faultlessly drawn and painted, if you like, yet bore me terribly because they give me food neither for the heart nor for the mind.

The last days are almost dangerous for a picture, as you know, because when it is not quite dry one cannot work in it with a large brush without the great chance of spoiling it. And the alterations must be made quietly and calmly with a small brush. Therefore I have simply taken it to a friend of mine at Eindhoven and told him to take care that I should not spoil it in that way, and after three days or so I shall go and wash it there with the white of an egg and give it those finishing touches. The man had seen the study from which I had made the lithograph, and said he had not thought I could have carried the drawing and colour at the same time to such a pitch.

It is very dark, and in the white hardly any white has been used, but simply the neutral colour. That colour in itself is a pretty dark grey, but in the picture it seems white. I will tell you why I have it so.

Here the subject is a grey interior, lit up by a little lamp. The dirty linen tablecloth, the smoky wall, the dirty caps in which the women have worked in the field, all this when seen through the eyelashes in the light of the lamp proves to be very dark grey, and the lamp, though a yellow reddish blaze, is lighter still, even much lighter, than the white in question.

As to the flesh colours, I know quite well that considered superficially they seem what is called flesh colour. At first in the picture I tried to paint them so with yellow ochre, red ochre, and white. But that was ever so much too light and was decidedly wrong. What was to be done? All the heads were finished, and even finished with great care, but I repainted them straightway, unmercifully, and the colour in which they are painted now is like the colour of a good dusty potato, unpeeled.

I have painted this from memory on the picture itself. In the picture I give free scope to my own head in the sense of thought or imagination, which is not the case in studies where no creative process is allowed, but where one finds food for one’s imagination in reality, in order to make it exact. This is the second time that a saying by Delacroix has meant much to me: the first time it was his theory about colours; now it is his theory about the creation of a picture. He pretended that the best pictures are made from memory. ‘Par coeur!‘ he said. But how many times I have painted the heads! And then I ran over every night to hit off some details on the spot.

I have now taken the painting back to the cottage to give it some last touches from nature. I think it is finished – always spoken comparatively, for in reality I shall never think of my own work as finished.

I wonder whether you will find in this picture something to please you. I hope so. I think you will see from it that I have my own way of looking at things, but that there is some conformity with others, certain Belgians. And so, though painted in a different style, in another century than the old Dutch masters, Ostade, for instance, it comes also from the heart of the peasant’s life, and is original.

I highly appreciate Portier’s saying that he did not retract anything from what he said; nor do I mind that it came out that he had not hung those first studies. But if I send a picture for him, he can only get it on condition that he will show it. As to Durand Ruel, though he did not think the drawings worth-while, do show him this picture; he may sneer at it, but show it to him nevertheless, so that he may see there is some energy in our work. You will hear: ‘Quelle croute!’ You may be sure of that; so am I. Yet we must continue to give something typical and honest.

The ‘Potato-Eaters’ is a picture that shows well in gold, but it would show equally well on a wall papered in the deep colour of ripe corn. Against a dark background it shows poorly, and not at all against a dull background. This is because it gives a glance into a very grey interior. In reality it also stands, as it were, in a gold frame, because towards the actual spectator there are the hearth and the glow of the fire on the white walls, which now stand outside the picture, but in reality throw the whole thing back. This coupling it to a gold tone gives, at the same time, a brightness to spots where you would not expect it, and takes away the mottled aspect it gets when unluckily put against a dull or black background. The shadows are painted in blue, and a gold colour stimulates this.

I have been so absorbed in the picture that I literally forgot my moving, which has to be looked to, after all.

I dare maintain that in connection with later pictures, the ‘Potato-Eaters’ will keep its value, and that you will see from it that I can do better. I have loved to make it, and I have worked at it with a certain animation. It has not bored me; perhaps for that reason it will not bore others. Because I believe this, I send it to you.