Leeman's biography begins with a description of Van Gogh's early life, when he aspired to paint and also to be a Christian preacher like his father. As a young man, Van Gogh lived with poor people in his native Holland, and ministered to them as well as sketching or painting their lives. "The Potato Eaters" thus reflects not only his emerging artistic vision, but also his belief that bread -- that is, very simple peasant food -- was an appropriate diet for a person of his spiritual and religious temperament. His letters from this time express his views, documenting that he often lived on crusts of dry bread, coffee (which the peasants in the painting are also drinking) and little else, often going for long times between enjoying warm meals.
|Van Gogh: "The Potato Eaters"|
|Toulouse-Lautrec: "Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh|
in the Cafe du Tambourin", Paris, 1887.
Van Gogh appears to have a glass of absinthe.
|Van Gogh: "A Table in Front of a Window|
with a Glass of Absinthe," Paris, 1887
Dr. Gachet, whose face is familiar from Van Gogh's portrait of him (above), played a large role in the last months of the painter's life when Van Gogh lived in the Auberge Ravoux. The chapter titled "Sunday Lunches with Dr. Gachet" by Leaf is especially informative. Van Gogh was a patient of Dr. Gachet, but also engaged in a warm relationship with the doctor's family, and dined at their home once or twice a week. "Feeding the painter was part of the doctor's therapy," as he presided over conversations about "art, politics, free love, and homeopathy."
One Sunday dinner in June of 1890 at Dr. Gachet's home included the doctor and his wife and son Paul, Vincent, his brother Theo Van Gogh, Theo's wife Johanna, and a Madame Chevalier. Theo and Johanna's baby was with them, though not at the table, evidently. "An atmosphere of joy generated by fine food, excellent wine, and freely flowing conversation reigned that day, as later recounted by Johanna, Paul Gachet, and Van Gogh."
|Van Gogh: "Margurite Gachet in the Garden," 1890.|
The book also includes an extended history of the Auberge Ravoux itself, which was never much changed after Van Gogh's famous death there. In the 1950s and later, it was used as a set by several famous film-makers, and has become a tourist attraction for Van Gogh fans.
|Van Gogh, "Bowl with Potatoes," Arles, 1888.|
Contrast this to the images of the "Potato Eaters."
That Van Gogh in France not only discovered color and light but also at least to some extent became aware of the taste of food, and thus reduced denying himself the enjoyment of eating is amazing! No less amazing is how productive Van Gogh was in Auvers: in 70 days there, he painted approximately 70 masterpieces, as I learned at the Van Gogh museum.
It would be fascinating to try to recreate one of the dinners documented in the recipe chapters!