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Video transcript

[Music] we're in the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and we're looking at the potato eaters this is the first really ambitious painting that van Gogh made and it's so different than what we normally expect to Van Gogh where we expect a landscape here we have a figure painting and we also expect brighter colors and here we have a painting that's intentionally dark look at how narrow the tonal range is you've got these cool grey green blues and then only the palest light coming from that lantern warming the faces of these peasants this is 1885 it's more than a decade after the first impressionist exhibition so brilliant colors are nothing new that's true but he's really hooked into instead a tradition of peasant painting and we might think about earlier Dutch artists like Israel's or French peasant painters like me a and it's clearly self-conscious linking of the Browns and the darkness to the subject to the very meager life that these people that is so closely bound to the earth so here they are five figures the woman is pouring coffee they're serving potatoes this is all they have to eat but it's also importantly a bounty that they've grown themselves presumably so that there is this very close relationship between their labor and their food the space is rather indeterminate the space behind the figures don't completely make sense there's a sense of the perspective not being quite right there's a sense of the anatomy being not quite right almost character sure yeah where shoulders don't seem correctly attached to torsos and things like that clearly the artist is struggling with Anatomy if you look for instance at the hand of the man who holds the cop there is a really problematic relationship between the cup and the hand it's not sitting in the palm and so van Gogh really looks like someone who doesn't know how to paint hearing in fact this is still very early in his career and he is struggling with things like perspective and foreshortening in the human body what seems to be primary for him here is to create this authentic relationship between the rough application of paint and the rough qualities of his subject a kind of sincerity and a sincerity about the lives of the peasants but also a sincerity to himself and remember he's coming from a religious place in a way his father was a parson he himself had studied to be a minister although had failed at that and there's something for him about this life of a peasant that is not just earth then dig and tied to the land but somehow more truthful more it's more spiritually truthful and more connected to something deeper about the human condition that related to religious ideas for him and you can see he's really worked the painting there are layers and layers of paint here and he says in one of his letters by ploughing on my canvases as they do in their fields so there really is this way in which he's willing himself into what he sees as the simpler and more spiritually authentic world clearly his ambition at this moment is to be a peasant painter and not only to be a peasant painter but be a peasant an idea that certainly horrified his family yeah you raise a son to be a kind of respectable middle class upper middle class person who in fact should aspire higher class wise and here with Van Gogh coming in an aspiring downward I think that the myths that have grown up around van Gogh that he was poor overshadows the fact that he comes out of a much more prosperous background in fact his uncle was an incredibly wealthy and successful print dealer and Van Gogh had earlier in his life tried to become a dealer but we're not dealing with a person who is really able to cope with the world in many ways van Gogh always saw himself as an outsider he was not a stable personality and so here he is creating a contained closely knit family environment a place in a sense where he belongs and that was true for a huge part of his life that he was wanting to always recreate the family that he felt estranged from and exiled from and I think Van Gogh's interest at this moment in being a peasant painter although it's different than what was going on in Impressionism in Paris was really allied to other post impressionist artists like Gauguin a desired leave behind the city and its fashions and its perfume and its fanciness and to do something really authentic so in that way more alive with the work of say corbeil earlier in the century an artist who shooed the polish and an elitism of the capital city and very self-consciously painted his rural hometown I think there was something artificial seeming about the paintings that were made for the art audience in Paris the official exhibitions at the salon what's so interesting is Theo the artist brother had offered to take one of Van Gogh's paintings and submitted to the salon for him and this was the painting that van Gogh sent Thea for that and yet this is so in opposition to everything that was expected of a salon painting what can you imagine Theo's face when he opened the box that contained this painting salon paintings for the most part had a sense of finish they were carefully painted there was an understanding of space and how to create an illusion of space there was an understanding of the human body and here van Gogh was struggling really with both of those things right van Gogh was much more interested in creating as you said a kind of authentic relationship between these figures and their environment here's a van Gogh said about this painting in a letter to his brother Theo he wrote it would be wrong to give a painting of peasant life a conventional polish if a peasant painting smells of bacon smoke potato steam fine that's not unhealthy if a stable reeks of manure all right that's what a stable isn't all about if a field has the smell of ripe corn or potatoes or guano or manure that's properly healthy especially for city dwellers such pictures might prove helpful to them but a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed in this painting is not now and this idea of painting something healthy for city people I think is something that he is in common with Gogan and other post-impressionists artists the idea of righting the wrongs of the industrial modern world this idea that art has a kind of agency it has a kind of political agency a kind of moral agency in the world and the world that the Paris aren't seeing cater to was dis upper middle class world that was stifling but in this way I know shares quite a bit with everybody from corbeil through MANET and through the Impressionists the avant garde here in the nineteenth century [Music]