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The dilemma of “The Potato Eaters”

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“The potato eaters: mistake or masterpiece?” the exhibition of the 2021-22 season (it will close on February 13) at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam already poses a curious and provocative dilemma in the title. But what is the meaning of this question given that we are talking about one of the works unanimously acclaimed by critics and public and certainly the one that the painter considered his masterpiece throughout his life?

Genesis of the picture

Giving an answer is precisely the purpose of this exhibition which aims to retrace the genesis of the painting and follow the history of its painful realization. A work on which the artist staked a lot in the hope that it could lead him to the Parisian artistic success and for which he worked meticulously preparing many sketches (present in the exhibition) and practicing in painting details and especially faces as evidenced by his letter of 1884 to his brother Theo: “I have to paint fifty heads just to have an experience, because right now I’m getting on track”.

Nuenen 1883

After particularly complicated years, marked by unhappy relationships and depression, and especially after the period lived in the mining area of ​​the Borinage in Belgium with the intention of evangelizing the poorest and sharing their destiny (perhaps in the wake of the Protestant pastor father, and who will also mark his artistic maturity), Vincent returns to Nuenen, in the Brabant region of the Netherlands, where the family had in the meantime moved. Van Gogh is now convinced that his path is the artistic one and decides to scrupulously begin the preparation of “Potato eaters”, a working method that was unusual for him until then. After many sketches Vincent moves on to larger compositions to arrive at the study of the effect of light and complementary colors, and finally visits the small houses of the Brabant village directly to be able to portray its inhabitants. He himself writes: “… I think it is wrong to give a peasant painting a kind of smooth and conventional surface”, and the German critic Rainer Metzger adds that their eyes in Van Gogh’s paintings betray: “the whole ‘integrity of an existence linked to nature that offers an authentic counterpoint to the inevitable self-satisfaction of a commissioned portrait ”.

If his contemporary painters, such as Jozef Israëls, gave their peasants a strong affective and sentimental value, van Gogh takes the values ​​of Realism to the extreme and arrives at a realistic and raw interpretation, translated on canvas into a exasperated expressiveness of the features of the diners but capable of giving them a sincere artistic dignity. Even the dark and earthy palette, almost monochromatic, confirms the pictorial intentions of van Gogh that does not allow any space for romantic and idealized interpretations. An aesthetic that is not understood by the public and critics and, instead of the hoped-for praise, harsh criticism falls on Vincent, as evidenced by the letter of May 24, 1885 from his friend and mentor Anthon Van Rappard who reproaches him, exasperated, for the little care in painting the picture. But to the criticisms for inaccurate details, Vincent contrasts the imperative importance of the message that this work wanted to communicate, and it is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, hospitalized in the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Remy-de-Provence, the artist still considered to paint a new version of “Potato eaters” and that, in the spring of 1890, thinking back to Brabant, he began to sketch peasant meals again.

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The exhibition

Through 24 paintings, 19 drawings, the artist’s sketchbook, prints, letters and books, the exhibition aims not only to tell the genesis of the painting but also to describe a piece of the artist’s life. It does so starting from the first works painted in Nuenen, in Brabant, to then arrive at the famous hut of the de Groot family (who inspired the painting) rebuilt in 3D and can be visited internally. Here we also find a presentation of the route of the Brabant Vangoghian places that unfolds between 39 monuments, three places of cultural heritage, the Vincentre of Nuenen (which from 2023 will be enriched by the Vincent LichtLab interactive experience) and the collection of the Noordbrabantsmuseum in Bosco Ducale.

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