A collection of Vincent van Gogh’s preparatory drawings sketched ahead of a planned “redoing” of The Potato Eaters, a masterpiece brutally slated by buyers, friends and family at the time of its painting, are being exhibited for what is believed to be first time.
The Dutch artist considered his depiction of a peasant family from the village of Nuenen in Brabant eating a meal of potatoes as one of only four of his works that could be regarded as important, alongside The Bedroom, Sunflowers and Augustine Roulin (La berceuse).
But for all Van Gogh’s strenuous and unusually academic efforts, chronicled by more than 50 related letters, sketches, drawings and paintings on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from Friday, The Potato Eaters met almost uniform disapproval when it was completed in 1885, even among his closest friends, including fellow painter Anthon van Rappard, who cruelly picked apart the portrayal in a letter to the artist.
Five years later, after persistent mental health problems – culminating in the slicing off of his ear in December 1888 – had led him to his voluntary admission to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh asked his mother and brother Theo to send him drawings of farmers from Nuenen as inspiration for a new version.
“I’m thinking of redoing the painting of the peasants eating supper, lamplight effect,” he wrote. “That canvas must be completely dark now, perhaps I could redo it entirely from memory.”
Van Gogh did not carry out his plans before he killed himself on 29 July 1890, but little-seen preparatory drawings he sketched earlier that year will be on show as part of a new exhibition, The Potato Eaters: Mistake or Masterpiece?
Bregje Gerritse, the curator of the exhibition, said: “In 1890, he is in Saint-Rémy, he is longing for the north as he has not been home for five years. He comes back to The Potato Eaters figures and starts drawings of interiors and figures at the dinner table and some of these are drawings that have not been on display for such a long time that our records even suggest they were never shown.”
Van Gogh struggled with group compositions, of which Van Rappard was a seasoned master, making his friend’s criticism all the more cutting. Van Rappard’s letter mocked Van Gogh for painting one male figure without “half of his nose”, a “knee or a belly or lungs”, and with an arm “a metre too short”.
“You can do better than this – fortunately; but why, then, observe and treat everything so superficially?” he wrote. “Why not study the movements? Such work was surely not intended seriously? And with such a manner of working you dare to invoke the names of Millet and Breton? Come on! Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly.”
Van Gogh was appalled by the letter, with its withering comparisons to contemporaneous artists he admired, Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet. He sent it back with a short covering note, in effect ending their friendship.
Van Gogh later wrote to Theo: “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. The sniffing of the wind when a digger looks up, say, or speaking. Life, in short.”
Gerritse said Van Gogh hoped to break into the Parisian art market with the painting and while that had “failed terribly”, the painter persisted in believing he had caught something of the peasant life he idealised.
She said: “I think many people view him as impulsive and intuitive but this work is very different. Ambitious with a clear concept in mind of depicting the real, honest, poor peasant life.
“I really like that Van Gogh stands behind his own work. 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.”
The Potato Eaters never featured in an exhibition and ended up unsold hanging above the fireplace in Theo’s apartment in Paris.
“In 1887 he writes to his sister that he still considered this work to be one of the best he ever made,” said Gerritse. “By then he has been living in Paris for a year, he has completely changed his style, using bold colours, brighter palettes, but he still very much believed in this very dark, very different work, because of the meaning it had for him.”