• Manoj Kumar

Stories from Art: The Potato Eaters by Van Gogh and Mr Jackson

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

The potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh PC: Van Gogh Museum

It was 7 in the evening and the sun had set an hour ago. The Groots house, inhabited by a family of five was still dark. The members of the family included Mr Jackson Groot, the head of the family and a peasant by profession and his wife Mrs Gertrude Groot who worked in a flax barn. Their two girls, Lily and Anna Groot, Anna being the younger of the two, were looked after by the fifth member of the family, the old Mrs Margaret, Gertrude’s mother.

Granny Margaret cautiously walked into the small and cluttered dining room and positioned herself under the sooty oil lamp that hung from the ceiling before shouting out in her usual foghorn voice, ‘Gertrude I am lighting the Lamp. It’s too dark and I am afraid that I may fall and hit my head somewhere.’

‘Mama not yet, please give it a while, Jack should be home any moment now.’ Gertrude spoke back calmly from the kitchen where she was scrubbing the soil off some potatoes.

‘Why can’t I light the lamp any sooner? Why do you insist on lighting it only after Jack returns? Why must the children and I sit in this darkness each night?’ Granny complained again like she did every evening.

‘You very well know the reason! I tell you every evening and yet you shout! The oil in the lamp is not cheap, Jack wants to save as much as possible.’ Gertrude shouted back with a hint of irritation in her voice.

‘Mama! mama! papa is back!’ An excited lily exclaimed loudly as she heard the door of their home creak open.

‘I am lighting the lamp’ Granny exclaimed with happiness and promptly lit the wick without waiting for anybody’s approval.

‘Light the lamp! light the lamp! that is all this old lady can ever think off. There is so much to be done in the kitchen and the house. I am away all day working in the barn and all that work makes my fingers hurt but she never helps me, all she does is sit and play with the children and think of lighting that damned lamp with the damned oil.’ Gertrude whispered under her voice.

Mr Jackson, after a hard day’s labour in the potato fields, walked into their small, creaky, old home and without even taking off his cap or washing his hands went straight to the dining table and sat on the same chair on which he always sat. He sat there with a sullen face, devoid of emotions, in utter silence under the only lamp in their home or rather the only lamp which they could afford to keep lit. The children lily and Anna rushed to the living room with bright and expectant eyes and sat next to their father. They sat on those aged and worn down creaky chairs looking towards the kitchen. A moment later Gertrude walked in with a plate of diced and boiled potatoes and a pot brimming with severely diluted coffee, placed them on the table and called upon granny Margaret to come and join them. Granny walked in as if she was busy all day and had forgotten about dinner completely. She put up with this act every day just to show Papa Jackson her fictitious contribution to the family.

‘This coffee has no coffee in it! It’s just hot water!’ Granny complained to Gertrude in the slightest whisper ensuring Jackson wouldn’t hear her protest. Gertrude ignored her mother with a sway of her head. Looking at the coffee cups and without making eye contact with Jackson she enquired, ‘How was your day? Did they give you your pay?’ Jackson looked at her and replied in a mumble ‘No!’

Silence prevailed and everyone went back to putting the mildly salted potatoes into their bellies and slurping on the coffee. This was the typical Groots family dinner, Gertrude would ask a measly two questions to which Jackson would respond in monosyllables, granny Margaret would complain in a faint tone and Gertrude and the children, without a single whimper, would always finish their supper in silence.

But today, Anna suddenly and with great enthusiasm looked up at Jackson and spoke with some misplaced gusto, ‘Papa, today something amazing happened in the Church. Father Marko taught us all about heaven. Did you know that in heaven everybody floats in the clouds and there are angels everywhere and there are no lamps because it’s bright everywhere? There is no need for money, god gives you everything you need, he gives you lots of food, chocolates and cakes.’ ‘Father Marko said that if we live like good people and not commit any sin we will go to heaven. Papa, I want to see heaven. I am tired of eating potatoes.’

‘Be respectful to Papa!’ Lily scolded her little sister and looked at Jackson waiting for his reaction.

After listening to Anna, Mr Jackson froze, the fork absolutely still in his hand, a piece of potato still skewered on it. He stared into the lone lamp flame, without blinking, lost in his thoughts. Then, his eyes gleaming golden under the soft and plush yellow light, he bared his heart for the first time in years.

‘We have one church and one altar and that is right here; our beloved table. All-day we labour under the sun for the comfort of this light, this table and the food on it while I see many a lords and ladies blessed with much much more. When the oil in the lamp, food in the bellies and the pennies in the purse run out, I do call upon God, I ask about the inequities and injustice, I speak about pain and suffering, but no one ever answers. Anna, my girl, you are right, heaven is a beautiful place and I am terribly sure it was all made up by a hungry peasant.’

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

  1. Title: The potato eaters

  2. Creator: Vincent van Gogh

  3. Date created: April 1885 – May 1885

  4. Medium: Oil paint

  5. Location created: Nuenen, The Netherlands

An EXCERPT from ‘letters to Theo’ about the ‘POTATO EATERS’

“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 labour 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—civilised people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.” Source: Van Gogh Letters

Notable Books on Van Gogh

  1. Lust for Life by Irving Stone

  2. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

  3. Van Gogh. The Complete Paintings

  4. Dear Theo by Irving Stone

*click on the title for accessing the amazon purchase link


First Study of Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

Second Study of Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

Inverted Lithograph – The Potato Eaters by Van gogh

The potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh – 1885 (final composition)

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