Vincent van Gogh didn’t really emerge as a professional artist until he was in his thirties, living with his parents in Nuenen in the Netherlands. While nowadays he may be most widely recognised for the work that he completed in his latter years, following his move to Paris in 1886, many of his earlier works still demonstrate his artistic mastery prior to the influence that Impressionism would have on him. One of the most well known paintings in his early oeuvre, and arguably his first major work, was De Aardappeleters, otherwise known as The Potato Eaters, created by van Gogh in 1885 – we’re going to take a closer look at the work itself as well as the early influences that helped to shape its creation.

Prior to his move to France and his association with the Impressionists, van Gogh influences lay much closer to home, in the form of Dutch artists such as Jozef Israëls and Anton Mauve, both of whom were members of the Hague School. The group was composed of artists who lived in and around The Hague between 1860 and 1890, and who were heavily influenced by the Realist paintings by members of the Barbizon School in the south of France. While it may sound a lot like a form of Dutch Impressionism, the Hague School was characterised by the use of a sombre colour palette and subdued subject matter, to the extent that it was often referred to as the Gray School.

In a letter to his brother Theo in June of 1884, van Gogh said, “When I hear you talk about a lot of new names, it’s not always possible for me to understand when I’ve seen absolutely nothing by them. And from what you say about ‘Impressionism’, I’ve grasped that it’s something different from what I though it was, but it’s still not entirely clear to me what one should understand by it. But for my part, I find so tremendously much in (Jozef) Israëls, for instance, that I’m not particularly curious about or eager for something different or newer.

Van Gogh began working on The Potato Eaters in April of 1885, and deliberately chose what he viewed as coarse or ugly models in order to convey peasants as they really were. His colour palette was muted, using mostly earthy tones, a far cry from the vivid hues that would characterise his later work, and the influence of Israëls is apparent – he had created an 1882 painting titles A Peasant Family at the Table which dealt with similar subject matter in a similar style and which was clearly a source of inspiration for van Gogh.

The painting was completed by May, but despite van Gogh’s pride in the work that he had created, it was not met with the same level of enthusiasm by others within his circle. His brother Theo (already an Impressionist convert) was unimpressed with the sketches of the work that van Gogh sent him, and his friend and fellow Dutch painter Anton van Rappard was also critical of the painting. Van Gogh later wrote to van Rappard that, “you had no right to criticise my work in the way that you did,” and that, “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

The Potato Eaters clearly held a special place in van Gogh’s heart and even two years later correspondence with his sister shows that he considered it to be his most successful painting. After his move to Antwerp and then Paris, his palette brightened considerably, but the early works that he created under the influence of artists from the Hague School remain an important juncture in van Gogh’s career.