Preparatory drawings for an unrealized second version of The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh’s initially reviled early masterpiece, are going on view for the first time in an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The show, “The Potato Eaters. Mistake or Masterpiece?” features 50 letters, drawings, and paintings related to The Potato Eaters, including never-before-seen sketches from 1890 that demonstrate that the artist planned but never completed another version of the composition.
Visitors can also step into the painting, so to speak, posing for photographs in a life-size reconstruction of the humble cottage dining room immortalized in the work.
The original painting, completed in 1885, portrays the De Groot family sharing a simple meal of potatoes. Van Gogh painted the work while living in the Dutch village of Nuenen, in Brabant. The family members, whom he came to know well, appear in some of his other works of the period.
The artist hoped the work would convey the hard truths of peasant life, but the painting was not well received. Van Gogh’s friend, the painter Anthon van Rappard, savaged the piece in a letter, insisting “You can do better than this,” and criticizing the proportions of the figures.
“What I’m trying to get with it is to be able to draw not a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head but the overall expression,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo van Gogh. “The sniffing of the wind when a digger looks up, say, or speaking. Life, in short.”
“I really like that Van Gogh stands behind his own work,” exhibition curator Bregje Gerritse told the Guardian. “He says there is a certain life in it, writing that while, of course, there are technical mistakes but that technical perfection isn’t what he is after; it is the impression that it conveys about peasant life that is much more important, and that he is sure people will forgive him for that.”
Despite the criticism, Van Gogh’s faith in the painting never wavered, even as his style evolved to include brighter colors.
“In 1887 he writes to his sister that he still considered this work to be one of the best he ever made,” Gerritse said.
And in the last months of his life, Van Gogh thought about revisiting his early painting, telling Theo, “I’m thinking of redoing the painting of the peasants eating supper, lamplight effect.”
He asked for the original drawings he had made five years earlier and began working on new sketches in his mature style. The resulting drawings—unveiled to the public here for the first time—are a marked departure from the original work, with hatch marks instead of his previous dark shading and more naturalistic poses—a tantalizing glimpse of a Van Gogh masterpiece that never came to be.
“The Potato Eaters. Mistake or Masterpiece?” is on view at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, October 8, 2021–February 13, 2022.
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