Sometimes during family reunions, when everybody is at the table eating, a sudden moment of silence intrudes and makes itself almost palpable. Only chewing is heard, and everyone becomes, just for a second, very self-conscious and uncomfortable — until someone talks again, and the strange sensation is gone. Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, one of the artist’s earlier works, captures a different moment of silence: intimacy and warmth push away all uneasiness and discomfort.
The peasants’ faces are almost identical, both in physical traits and emotional expression. Historically speaking, many artists, from Byzantine art to Mannerism, endowed their characters with identical faces: icon and fresco art where figures represented saints, apostles, or other religious figures. If this similarity carries an idea beyond the literal, it lies in the universality of the conveyed message — faith, salvation, compassion. Though van Gogh painted and represented actual people — it is known that he was a guest at the house of the depicted family — his message is every bit as universal (read more about van Gogh’s relationship with the church).
Here the faces represent hard labor and farmers. They appear tired and worried; perhaps tired of the worries. The man’s face radiates quiet dignity, while the woman on the utmost right seems to let out an air of bitterness and disillusionment. In a way, these two delimit the two edges of the emotional spectrum of this family. The other three appear more neutral; consumed by the meal, they appropriately sit in between the two outermost characters. Interestingly, we do not see the face of the girl — perhaps an indication of an unknown future where hope and opportunity may burgeon. She stands right in the middle, which may also imply that she is yet to be swayed to either direction, and to become either like her father, resigned and calm, or like her grandmother, embittered and frustrated.
The single source of light — an effective compositional tool that unifies the lit scene into a tentative pyramidal shape — marks food as the central concern for those who gathered around the table. The lamp may also bear a symbolic meaning, as this meal could be the only bright moment in these people’s lives.
Formally, this piece gravitates much more to earthy realism of Francois Millet than to impressionism, despite the light and the fumes caught in it. This painting was van Gogh’s first major artistic statement, and already it harbors some of the artist’s chief strengths — for instance, the ability to capture, and lucidly convey psychological subtlety.
*this article has been edited at a later date