Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. Surprisingly though, he was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and was considered a madman and a failure. He became famous after his death, and since then his reputation has only increased.
Van Gogh lived between 1853 and 1890. He was born in the Netherlands, but during his time as an active painter he lived mostly in France. He lived alone and worked in obscurity. The only person who supported his artistry was his brother, Theo, whom also sent him money. Theo was van Gogh’s only friend, and they sent hundreds of letters to each other. Even his parents thought van Gogh was wasting his life trying to become a painter.
The money Theo sent to van Gogh did not suffice for much. Van Gogh lived in poverty, and at the age of thirty the poor living conditions forced him to move to his parents in the Netherlands. He was painting constantly, and during his stay with his parents he produced what he himself considered his first masterpiece: The Potato Eaters. The painting did not attract much attention at the time, but now it is one of his most celebrated works.
The Potato Eaters differs from most of van Gogh’s known paintings in style. It lacks the colourfulness and impressionism of his later paintings, because van Gogh did not discover and develop his distinct style until years later when he was living in Paris. But The Potato Eaters is still a remarkable and impressive painting, and the muted palette is fitting to the scene and motif.
The painting depicts five peasants sitting around a table, eating a simple meal of potatoes. They all have crude, earthy looks, but there is a sense of community between the people, there is a warmth between them which is visualized in the light of the small lamp.
Van Gogh wanted to paint the scene as authentically as possible. He deliberately chose unattractive and homely models for the painting. The message of the painting was more important to Van Gogh than correct anatomy or technical perfection.
Van Gogh stated about his painting:
“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.”
All art is conveying some truth about the society and circumstances of its creation. We can better understand the importance of The Potato Eaters when we consider the background of van Gogh’s life and his intention when painting it.
In The Potato Eaters, van Gogh depicts a scene which is alien to most people. The life of a peasant is profoundly different from the life of most people. It was in 1885 when van Gogh made the painting, and the difference has only increased since. The scene in The Potato Eaters has never been as alien as it is today.
In today’s urbanization and digitalization, farming is growing rarer and rarer. To provide for oneself as a farmer is harder than it has ever been, and being a farmer is not an appealing prospect to most people. People are moving to the crowded cities and have jobs involving computers and technology. Food is mass produced by machines. There is convenience food and fast food. The quantity of food is incredible, but its quality is terrible.
There is an artificiality to this way of life. Our artificial jobs earn us artificial money which we use to buy artificial food. Compare this to the life portrayed in The Potato Eaters. The peasants have worked hard to produce the potatoes they are eating. Probably they worked all day in the farm, only to meet for a common meal in the evening. They are eating the fruit of their own labor. The result of their work is displayed for their very eyes, in contrast to the way our salary is a distant number on our bank accounts. There is an authenticity to The Potato Eaters that is missing in the artificiality of today’s society.
Moreover, our lives have grown more and more artificial. We have Facebook-profiles, designed to present our best selves. The mantra of Instagram, ”pics or it didn’t happen”, defines the philosophy of our age, where there is no value in experience itself; only in the likes it produces on social media. The number of likes determines our self-worth. We are constantly online and available. We have a conversation with someone while snapchating someone else. Our lives on social media or more important than reality. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but how many real friends do we have? How many people can we be our true selves with?
Vincent van Gogh is the perfect example of a person who did’t care what other people thought of him. He lived by himself and made art that nobody liked. His only friend was his brother Theo, but he was a true friend. They wrote hundreds of letters to each other, long letters, where they wrote honestly of their innermost feelings, compared to the superficial text messages of today.
We need people we can be ourselves with, without aiming to impress. People who like us despite our flaws and our ugliness. Like The Potato Eaters, we sometimes need to share an earthy, unpretentious meal with our friends. We need to come down to earth. We need to learn to enjoy moments without posting them online. I doubt The Potato Eaters took a photo of their meal. They didn’t even know they were being painted, and they didn’t care, because they were enjoying the moment, enjoyed simply being together.
Deep down all people are equally imperfect, equally fragile, equally human. Let’s rejoice at that, and let’s make an effort to stop caring what others think. Let’s start living in real life, enjoying each day and each moment.