-Pastor Melissa Fain-
This is a continuing Lenten exploration of non-religious artists' take on religion.
This is how I’ve suggested one engages these meditations.
Vincent VanGogh: Potato Eaters
About the Artist:
Vincent VanGogh (1853-1890) Was born to an upper middle class family of ministers, artists, and art dealers. He was encouraged to join the family business. He began with art dealing, but was quickly let go, because it didn’t interest him, and he was rude to the customers. He decided to turn to teaching, but failed at getting students. That’s when he became immersed in religion. Taking up his father’s field, he went to University to be trained, only to completely fail at that too.
He decided to become a missionary, and was placed in a small coal miner’s town. He connected immediately with the people and their plight. Out of an act of charity, he gave up his missionary lodgings to the homeless, and was fired for it.
About the Art:
Potato Eaters is the response to being in this small coal town, and being with the people. VanGogh connected with them, and saw them as his people. He focused on art in a way he hadn’t focused on anything else. This was his masterpiece.
With everything going on in Ukraine right now, I’m sure there has been an uptick of people searching for VanGogh’s sunflowers. He painted them all the time. Inside, outside; a couple, a whole field. They were his muse. What the average viewer doesn’t look for is Potato Eaters.
The first time I saw Potato Eaters was on my first date with my now husband, 19 years ago this April. We went to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. They had a special VanGogh exhibit, and it included a reproduction of Potato Eaters. There was a plaque that proclaimed Potato Eaters to be his finest work of art. I couldn’t see it. I vocally expressed it. I walked over to one of his bedroom paintings and openly said that was better than Potato Eaters. Potato Eaters was so dark! It was so ugly! Give me Sunflowers! Give me Starry Night! Now Starry Night is his masterpiece! How could anyone say anything different?
Then I grew up. Well, I grew older. I hope I never really grow up, or if I do it’s seconds before I die. Anyway, I matured, and I learned. To know this piece is so vital to his artistic career, and his conclusion as a missionary, completely changes this piece for me. To now know how difficult it is to control light in a painting, and how technical he was with light, completely changes this piece for me.
There is so much going on. This family is in need. You can see it from their sallow faces. You know what they are thinking just from looking. They are all mentally saying, “This is all we have.” They have all come to terms with that fact in their own way. The man on the left is fearful. The woman next to him is thinking an added thought. She is looking at the man and she wants to know what they are going to do about it. Can they do anything about it? The other two? They are older, and hold faces of resignation. This is how it is. This is life. This is truth. The little girl? We cannot know. Only that her innocence will lead to the others eventually.
That, by itself, is deep! Then you realize another truth. On the wall is a painting of the Nativity! This is a Christian family, who go to Mass. Where is their church here? What does the Priest’s parsonage look like? Is he forced to only eat potatoes too? Knowing what led to this painting, the answer is no.
Then there is the light. This is a coal miner’s family. In the late 19th century coal powered furnaces were a thing. You do not see it in this house. You can tell by their tiny light over the table, and their warm clothing. There is no furnace. You would see light coming from somewhere other than the tiny oil candle. That’s when you know, their work heats someone else’s house.
Van Gogh, having been born to a wealthy family, is telling the world why he gave up his missionary home to the homeless with this family. When you understand what is really going on, how can you look at this and ignore their fear and loss?! How can you not see how amazing this painting truly is?
How does The Potato Eaters preach the Word of God to the people of God?