EEVERYONE THINKS they know Vincent van Gogh until they see “The Potato Eaters” (pictured). Painted in Holland in 1885, it is as far in tone as one could imagine from the flaming sunflowers from his later work in the South of France. Five members of an agricultural household clump around the table and share a meal with potatoes and coffee. The atmosphere is cramped, the colors most muted green and brown. Outside the circle of lamplight, darkness penetrates. It was one of the few group scenes he painted, and almost everyone who saw it in his lifetime hated it. Van Gogh told his sister that it was the best thing he had ever done.
This autumn, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has made it the focus of an exhibition under the heading “Mistakes or Masterpieces?” The title teases a bit, but Bregje Gerritse, who has curated the show, says viewers should take the issue seriously. The painting is marked by flaws: funny torso, glances that cannot be met. Some may be conscious, but Van Gogh acknowledged that others were scammers. Still, he felt his critics missed the point. With “The Potato Eaters”, he reached out for a new authenticity, an understanding of deformed beauty that refused to romanticize his motifs.
It started with a deadline. Van Gogh’s brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, wrote in February 1885 to ask if he had anything for this year’s salon. Vincent lived in Brabant in southern Holland and drew the local farmers. He had nothing appropriate, but threw himself into the project. Van Gogh greatly admired Jean-François Millet’s depictions of country life and was influenced by Jozef Israels, a Dutch painter of working class scenes. He also studied color theory and physiognomy, the pseudoscience of reading character from facial structure. But most of all he was possessed by the peasants. He wanted to capture their rough bodies and their honest relationship with the earth.
His drawings from the period, the jagged lines already recognizable by his own, are full of crooked shoulders and angular wooden limbs. He sought out “raw, flat faces with low foreheads and thick lips”. He appears to be gripped by a model’s protruding jaw. When the meat tones in his first trip on “The Potato Eaters” came too light, he switched to “soap-like” shades, “about the color of a good dusty potato, of course unpeeled”.
The Dutch have a genius for this kind of thing: to celebrate the ordinary, often with a nose-thumb in spite. You can look back from Van Gogh to the ancient masters, with their meticulous attention to cheese, pets and drinking games at the expense of gods and saints. This is what Pieter Bruegel shows in his “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”: the farmer embarks on his plowing, undisturbed by the tragedy. You can also look ahead from Van Gogh to Piet Mondrian’s simple, repetitive shapes or in the geometric concrete of Rem Koolhaa’s architecture.
In film, Holland’s gift is for documentaries rather than fiction. On television, it’s 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-grandson, a provocative reality-TV innovator murdered by an Islamist extremist in 2004. The best Dutch literature swims in everyday boredom, from “The Evenings” (1947), Gerard Reve’s novel about queer post-war ennui, to “The Discomfort of Evening” (2020), Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s novel about queer millennial ennui. “The Potato Eaters” could have been used as a cover illustration for the new book, which opens with a meal in a poor Christian farm in Brabant, about 115 years later.
The painting ended up hanging over the fireplace of Van Gogh’s brother. Anton van Rappard, a painter’s colleague, criticized its formal shortcomings so harshly that Van Gogh’s friendship with him never recovered. The next year he moved to France and discovered the Impressionists, and his palette exploded in the kaleidoscope he knew from his later work. Although Van Gogh may not have intended it, that contrast makes the “Potato Eaters” feel like a judgment on the narrow moralism of Dutch society. The refreshing Dutch embrace of the ordinary goes hand in hand with a sometimes oppressive conformism. The country’s unofficial slogan is Behave normally: “do not be selfish, behave normally”. Yet its greatest geniuses, including Van Gogh, have been those who could not. ■
This article was featured in the “Books and Art” section of the print edition under the heading “Earthy delights”