As It Happens

Van Gogh considered this among his most important works. Everyone else thought it was trash

Vincent Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters was rejected by the art community in 1885 and never publicly displayed during the artist's lifetime. Now it's at the centre of a new exhibit called Mistake or Masterpiece?

Artist later tried to remake The Potato Eaters; a new exhibit features his final sketches

Vincent Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters — a dimly lit portrait of Dutch peasants at the dinner table — was widely panned by artists and art critics when it was unveiled in 1885. (Vincent van Gogh Foundation/Van Gogh Museum )

Story Transcript

One of the paintings Vincent van Gogh was most proud of was one that his fellow artists and friends reviled. 

The Potato Eaters depicts a family of rural Dutch peasants gathered around a dinner table, their meagre meal of coffee and potatoes lit by a lone lamp. 

The Dutch artist thought his gritty ode to rural poverty would be his ticket to breaking into the lucrative Paris art market — but instead it was roundly rejected by his peers, art critics and even his close friends. 

The painting was never publicly displayed during van Gogh's lifetime. Instead, it remained unsold, hanging in his brother Theo's Paris apartment. But now it is the subject of a new exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam called The Potato Eaters. Mistake or Masterpiece?

"As an art historian, I absolutely consider this a masterpiece.…  Anyone who stands in front of the work will see the faces of these peasants and understand what van Gogh wanted to do with this painting," Bregje Gerritse, the exhibit's curator, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"At the same time, I do also understand his critics at the time, because, of course, compared to what was normal [then], this is a very, very dark painting and van Gogh does make certain mistakes. He isn't able yet to really portray these figures very convincingly."

Gerritse's exhibit displays The Potato Eaters alongside about 50 letters and drawings related to the painting, including sketches from the final days of the artist's life, when he was preparing to recreate it from scratch.

'Such work was surely not intended seriously?'

Van Gogh created The Potato Eaters in the hopes of submitting it to a prestigious art salon in Paris, Gerritse said. The stakes were high. In order to make the cut, he would have to prove his technical skills as a painter and produce nothing short of a masterpiece.

But when he unveiled the painting in 1885, it was almost universally panned.

"He really hoped to break through and make an entrance on the art market — but the opposite was true," Gerritse said.

Some of the harshest criticism came from van Gogh's friend and fellow painter Anthon van Rappard, who criticized what he saw as sloppy craftsmanship that left one figure with only "half of his nose" and another with an arm "a metre too short."

"Such work was surely not intended seriously?" he wrote to van Gogh in a letter, which is featured in the exhibit. "Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly." 

This letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo features a sketch of Dutch peasants digging potatoes. This, as well as 50 other letters and drawings connected to van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, are on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam between Oct. 9, 2021, and Feb. 13, 2022. (Vincent van Gogh Foundation/Van Gogh Museum )

The Paris art community rejected the painting, in part, because its dullness stood in stark contrast to the vibrant and colourful impressionism that was in vogue at the time, Gerritse said.

What's more, she said, van Gogh eschewed the pursuit of technical perfection and instead focused on conveying his core message "about the raw, honest, hard-working life of these peasants."

He defended the work in one of his letters, writing: "Anyone who would rather see insipidly pretty peasants can go ahead. For my part, I'm convinced that in the long run, it produces better results to paint them in their coarseness than to introduce conventional sweetness."

In 1887, he wrote to his sister that The Potato Eaters was one of the best things he ever made.

"So he really stands by it," Gerritse said.

2nd chance never realized

During the last five years of his life, van Gogh suffered severe mental health problems, culminating in him cutting off his own ear in 1888. Afterward, he admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

That's where he was when he wrote to his brother Theo that he wanted to take a second stab at The Potato Eaters. His style and technique had both evolved significantly since his first attempt. Influenced by impressionism, he learned to paint in bold and vivid colours, and he also mastered the technical skills that eluded him early on.

"He hasn't been home to the North or the Netherlands for five years, and he's really longing for home and thinking of his hometown," Gerritse said.

"That's when he makes several drawings, actually, of peasants sitting on the table — and you can see coffee, as well as potatoes, and a lot of references to The Potato Eaters."

Van Gogh spent his final years preparing to recreate The Potato Eaters. His preparatory sketches — including this one from 1890, titled Interior with Five Figures Around a Table — are on display at the Van Gogh Museum. (Vincent van Gogh Foundation/Van Gogh Museum)

But before he could complete his remake, van Gogh took his own life on July 19, 1890.

Despite his efforts at recreating the painting, Gerritse says van Gogh continued to stand by the core messages contained in the original.

"I actually think his idea of redoing the painting, it once again shows how important the subject was for him," Gerritse said. "It definitely doesn't mean that he wasn't content with the painting. Actually the opposite."

The Potato Eaters. Mistake or Masterpiece? opened on Oct. 9 and runs until Feb. 13, 2022.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. 

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