Review of Van Gogh’s ‘The Potato Eaters”

Katie Padden, Writer

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“The Potato Eaters,” an oil painting by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in 1885, depicts an impoverished family sitting around a sparsely furnished and gloomy table. The harsh light and green hue of the painting mirror the sick reality of the people of Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine of the early 19th century. Van Gogh draws from his palette earthy tones, using browns, greys, greens, and yellows to make the subjects consider the very browns and earthy colors of freshly dug up potatoes. Their cheeks are flush, but we cannot tell if it is from exertion of hardy living or from the miserly tint of cold, illness, or emotion. This fascinating layer of ambiguity highlights the differences between the humans it portrays. Their faces are all in various throes of harsh lighting, provided by a single oil lamp and show differing levels of communicative effort.

And despite all of this harshness, there is a communion-esque air of togetherness in the painting. The figures are arrayed in a circle, as the Knights of the Round Table once were. This display not only heightens the sense of nature’s crueler cycles but also, allegorically, would seem to serve as a warning: even those noble knights may be brought to the level of wretches by hunger and human despair. The sparse surroundings, likewise, suggest a certain vestige of nobility–asceticism, the virtue of voluntary self-deprivation exemplified by the pious nuns and monks of the early Catholic faith, in hopes of some better future. A future where frugality, rather than excess, is to be lauded.

Van Gogh’s own statement is also food for thought in this desolate and hungry human scene. In the Van Gogh Museum’s statement, it is said: “He strove to paint the faces, ‘the color of a good, dusty potato, unpeeled naturally,’ and to convey the idea that these people had ‘earned their meal honestly.’” There is a certain honesty of the entire painting, that Van Gogh seemed to treasure in his works. The figures of the painting possess a hidden knowledge, that much is certain. How else could there be such normalcy, such a tranquil revelation of poverty, otherwise? Whatever secrets the haggard, earthy people keep are ambiguously framed. Have they always lived in poverty and known the intricacies of survival? Do they hold compassion for the viewer in their simple hearts, or do they sneer and say, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”?

Their intentions and their lives are shrouded in simplicity and clouded in dust, caught only in one moment of a humble dinnertime communion. Make of it what we may, only the Potato Eaters and Van Gogh truly know what lies within their hearts.