The Potato Eaters, 1885 by Van Gogh

Conceived as a summation of Van Gogh's work and study up to that time, The Potato Eaters also expresses most strongly and fully his social and moral feeling. He was a painter of peasants, not for the sake of their picturesqueness - although he was moved by their whole aspect - but from a deep affinity and solidarity with poor people, whose lives, like his own, were burdened with care. He found in their common meal the occasion in which their humanity and moral beauty are strikingly revealed; they appear then as a close community, based upon work and the sharing of the fruits of work. The table is their altar and the food a sacrament for each one who has labored. Under the single light at this common table, the solitude of the individual is overcome and the harshness of nature, too - yet each figure retains a thought of his own and two of them seem to be on the brink of an unspoken loneliness. The colors of the dark interior - blue, green, and brown - bring us back to nature outside. In the homely faces the hands of these peasants - in color and modeling they are like the potatoes that nourish them - there is a touching purity. It is the purity of familial souls in whom care for one another and the hard struggle with the earth and weather leave little place for self-striving.

The composition has a rough strength, in part the result of a naive placing. And in Van Gogh's clumsiness, which conveys also, as he intended, the clumsiness of his people, there is a source of movement. The grouping of the figures at the sides of the table is odd; the wall between the two figures at the right creates a strange partitioning of the intimate space.

Within the gloom of the dark tonality are remarkable bits of painting, prepared by Van Gogh's tenacious studies: the cups of coffee, with their gray shadows; the potatoes on the platter; and the superb heads, which in their isolation from one another betray the portrait studies from which they were copied. The eyes of two figures at the left shine with an inner light and the shadows on their features are more a modeling of character than a phenomenon of darkness. "I like so much better to paint the eyes of people than to paint cathedrals", Van Gogh wrote shortly after.