a)Describe the subject matter of the painting.
The painting depicts five figures sitting around a square table eating potatoes; three of them are females and two of them are males. The subject matter is realistic and naturalistic as it depicts the ordinary life of five peasants. Most of them are eating baked potatoes from a potato tray. The woman on the extreme right of the painting is pouring a brew similar to coffee into the cups on the table from a teapot. All of them are wearing either caps or kerchiefs, and thick and long clothing.
They are in a dark room and the only light source comes from the oil lamp hanging from the beams of the ceiling. The lamp is situated almost in the centre of the painting and it illuminates the room.
Although the painting is dominated by dark and gloomy colors, the facial expressions of the peasants shine out brightly, revealing their mixed inner emotions. Their expressions are very serious and solemn, and they do not seem to be very happy. Their looks are portrayed to be ambivalent and mistrusting. The figures remain in a depth of their own, not communicating, but gazing straight into the imaginary world. They have coarse and protruding features, which are distinctive characteristics of peasants. Their figures are bony and coarse, as seen from their hands that stretched out to obtain the potatoes. However, their figures are also mainly naturalistic and rather clear and defined. It is obvious that Van Gogh is trying to portray the ordinary, poor and tough lives of the peasants.
b)Describe the use of color and composition in the painting and how they affect the overall mood of the painting.
The entire painting is monochromatic. The colors used are mainly dull colors such as brown and black, giving a depressing and melancholy feeling to the painting. The earthy tones resemble the coarse, sun burnt face of the peasants. They may have gone through hard work and labor under the sun and thus, earthy colors are used to give a naturalistic feeling to the painting. The silhouettes of the peasants are in dark colors, which set off against the monochrome gloom of the background. The painting is also realistic and non-exaggerated, as it is merely a scene from ordinary daily life of peasants at that period of time. Hence the overall colors used are tertiary and earthly. There is also a play of dark and light tones which is presented by using chiaroscuro in the modeling of the faces of the potato eaters.
The composition of the painting is carefully arranged. The painting is almost symmetrical in the way the figures are positioned, as they are distributed geometrically. There are two people on either side of the table facing each other, framing another two seated behind the table facing the viewer, which is visually separated by a feminine figure giving her back to the viewer at the front of the table. The lady’s back is facing the viewer, so it blocks the viewer out like as though there is a sense of isolation. The subjects are arranged in a unified and balanced composition as the space is all well used and all the potato eaters are sitting in a comfortable position. Thus it shows a balanced composition without any unused space.
The ceiling is low and close to the peasants, the room is also small and shabby, creating a sense of oppression. These factors also contribute to the hushed, dank atmosphere in the painting, which is clumsiness to the bulky shapes of the figures.
c)State the ways in which The Potato Eaters displays the influences of Naturalism.
Naturalism advocates the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, representing people, places and objects without deliberate idealization or stylization and a close attention to accurate and precise details.
The painting is naturalistic in the sense that it consisted of accurate, factual representation of people, places, and objects. The subject matter is realistic and naturalistic as it depicts the ordinary life of five peasants. The figures of the peasants are also mainly naturalistic and rather clear and defined, with no exaggerations in the portrayal of certain body parts to achieve intended effects. Organic and three-dimensional shapes are depicted, such as the forms of the peasants and the objects around them (potatoes, cups, table etc.), intended to portray people, objects and the environment as they appear to the eye, which adds on to the whole naturalistic feeling of the painting.
The colors used are also factual and realistic colors. Earthy colors are chosen to illustrate the faces and hands of the peasants, to give the impression that they had gone through hard work and labor under the sun for long periods of time and thus, their faces and hands are sun burnt to such a color, creating a naturalistic feeling to the painting.
The depiction of light comes from a definite light source which is the light shinning from the lamp hanging above the dining table. Chiaroscuro is also used, adding value and depth to the forms within the painting, allowing them to stand more independently from the background. These abilities to capture light and color as the eye sees it also contributed to the idea of naturalism.
The use of somber tones definitely illustrated how a poor life of a peasant could be. Also, the atmosphere and mood of poverty was well set by the colors used. In this way, it is believable to the viewers that the painting is certainly trying to represent the real lives of the subject matter-the peasants.