Vincent Van Gogh ”Potato Eaters”

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Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh was born near Brabant in Southern Holland on March 30, 1853, the oldest son of a Dutch minister, he grew to become one of the most well-known and influential artists of the 19th century.  Van Gogh tried his hand at several different vocations including working for Goupil& Co., an art dealer, at the age of 16 with his 4 years younger brother Theo, teaching as an assistant in Ramsgate, and acting as a layman preacher in a poor coal mining district in Belgium, before finally deciding to become an artist at the age of twenty-seven.  His early works are dark portraying downtrodden city dwellers as well as Dutch peasants at work.

In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris where he lived with his brother, now the manager of Goupil’s, who financially supported the artist.  In Paris Van Gogh became familiar with the work of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists.Van Gogh began to lighten his color palette and experimented with different shorter brushstrokes.  His works changed from peasant workers to images of Paris, portraits, self-portraits, and images of flowers.In 1888, at the age of 35, Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles where he had dreams of starting a community of artists.  Theo continued to support him financially and tried to sell his artwork.In 1890 Van Gogh was averaging a painting a day.At the age of 37, Van Gogh attempted suicide, while in a wheat field he shot himself in the chest.  He died two days later with his brother at his side.  Six months later Theo died as well and was buried next to his brother in the small church at Auvers-sur-Oise.

 Potato Eaters

At the beginning of spring, 1885, Van Gogh sketched studies for the painting, and corresponded with his brother Theo, who was not impressed with his current work or the sketches Van Gogh had sent him in Paris. He worked on the painting from April 13 until the beginning of May, when it was mostly done except for minor changes which he made with a small brush later the same year. Just like the other two paintings – “Basket of Potatoes” and “Two Peasant Women Digging Potatoes” – “Potato Eaters” was made during the painter’s time in the Dutch countryside in the town of Nuenen.

Van Gogh wanted to depict peasants as they really were. He deliberately chose coarse and ugly models, as such images would appear more natural and unspoiled in his finished work. The colours are dark and can even be called dirty, as to represent the harsh working conditions of the fields of the 19th century. For the same reasons, light is also scarce, its only source being the little lamp hanging from the ceiling. Van Gogh himself stated the reason for these decisions: “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 labor 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 — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.”

Writing to his sister Willemina two years later in Paris, Van Gogh still considered The Potato Eaters his most successful painting: “What I think about my own work is that the painting of the peasants eating potatoes that I did in Nuenen is after all the best thing I did”. However, the work was criticized by his friend Anthon van Rappardsoon after it was painted. This was a blow to van Gogh’s confidence as an emerging artist, and he wrote back to his friend, “you…had no right to condemn my work in the way you did” (July 1885), and later, “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.” (August 1885).

Recipes:

Stamppot – traditional Dutch winter fare

Ingredients
500 tot 600 gram (8 1/2 to 10 cups) chopped kale
1 kilo (2.2 lbs) potatoes
50 gram/3 Tbsp. lard or butter
1 good rookworst (or several Frankfurters)
2 onions
100 to 150 gram (1/2 to 2/3 cup) bacon, chopped
1 meat stock cube
freshly ground black pepper to taste
salt (optional, lard, bacon and stock cube also contain salt, so taste first)
2 Tbsp. white vinegar

Preparation in advance
Cooking the potatoes and kale – Peel the potatoes, cut large ones in half, so that all potatoes are about the same size. Put in a large pan and add as much water as needed to just submerge the potatoes. Add the stock cube. Put the kale on top of the potatoes, and the rookworst on top of the kale. Cover with a lid, bring to the boil and then lower the fire. Let simmer for about twenty minutes, Prick the potatoes with a fork to see if they’re done.
Braising bacon and onions – As soon as potatoes and kale are cooking, start with the bacon and onions. Heat the bacon in a thick-bottomed skillet (I use a cast-iron one). You don’t need to add any fat, but a spoonful of lard of butter won’t hurt. When the bacon fat has melted, add the onions and lower the heat. Stir occasionally, and keep covered. Braise for fifteen minutes. The onions will caramelize, the bacon won’t burn. If you’d like to have browner onions and crispier bacon, remove the cover for the last minutes and raise the heat.

Preparation
Mashing potatoes and kale – When the potatoes are done, remove the rookworst. Pour off the liquid, but retain it. Take a good masher and mash potatoes and kale without turning it into a purée. Now add as much of the cooking liquid as you need to get a savoury consistency, Mix in bacon and onions, lots of black pepper, a dollop of lard or butter, and the vinegar. Now taste to see if any extra salt is needed (bacon and stock cube also contain salt). You could also let everyone add salt to their own plate.

To serve
Stamppot is served piping hot, with the rookworst on top, whole or in thick slices. If you have real gravy, serve that along with the stamppot. My Dutch taste panel however liked this stamppot just as well without the gravy.

Mashed potatoes and endives

Ingredients
1 kilo/2 pounds potatoes (slightly mealy)
400 gram/1 pound endives, freshly cut (better and cheaper than bought already cut in plastic bags)
1 stock cube (meat or vegetable)
black pepper
NO salt!!!
1 onion
100 gram/3.5 oz. streaky bacon
Or, for vegetarians no bacon but
100 gram/3.5 oz. Gouda cheese, freshly grated or in small cubes (5×5 mm/0.2×0.2 inch)
(in that case also 1 Tbsp butter to fry the onion)
Optional
1 deciliter/7 Tbsp milk

Preparation in advance
Peel the potatoes and cut them in pieces of about the same size. Chop the onion and bacon.
Rinse the endives. If it does not have too much earth between the leaves, I simply dip the endives a few times in water before cutting. If there’s a lot of earth in it, I cut the endive first and rinse afterwards. How small you make the strips of endives depends on what you like. I prefer coarsely cut (see picture), but no doubt many people will prefer small strips. Because that is the way you buy packaged endives at the supermarket.

Preparation
Put the potatoes in a pan that is large enough to contain the endives too after boiling. Add enough water to just cover the potatoes, and the quartered stock cube. Do not add salt, the stock cube is almost all salt anyway. Bring to a boil and temper the heat, cover the pan but allow the steam to escape. Leave on the fire for fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on the size of the potato pieces.
Meanwhile, heat the chopped streaky bacon in a small skillet, and as soon as the fat has melted, add the onion. If the bacon was not fatty enough, add some butter or lard. Put a lid on the skillet and leave the bacon and onion on the lowest possible heat until the stamppot is ready.
Check whether the potatoes are ready by pricking them with a fork. If there is no resistance, the potatoes are done. Pour the remaining water off into a bowl. Take one cup from this, or 2/3 cup cooking liquid and 1/3 cup milk, and heat this until boiling point.
Mash the potatoes with a good masher, then add the raw endives. Pour over half of the hot liquid and continue mashing, or use a wooden spoon to bruise the vegetables. The endives will shrink because of the heat. Finish with adding the fried bacon and onions or onions and cheese, and freshly ground black pepper.

To serve
With meatballs or slavink, or braised or stewed meat. Put a salt cellar on the table for the natrium addicts.
Personally, I do not eat this stamppot with gravy, but you can serve it if you like. As long as it is real gravy from your own kitchen, and not from a bottle of carton!

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