Planteuse de pommes de terre / Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes


Black chalk over charcoal on ribbed, hand-made paper (watermark: shield with lily and the initials HFDC), highlighted with eraser, partially washed
Inv. No. 16738 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)

41.7 × 45.3 cm

zur  Biographie

Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes, a work from the early phase of Van Gogh’s career, is one of a group of drawings showing isolated individuals at work in the fields. He drew it in the summer of 1885 in Nuenen, where, lacking any financial means of his own, he had been living with his parents in the parsonage since late 1883. He found the subjects for his drawings and paintings in the real world, in the surrounding countryside and among the craftsmen and peasants of Brabant. Van Gogh, whose career path was that of an outsider with no formal training, was influenced in his approach to art by the Dutch artists belonging to the Hague school, for example Jozef Israëls, but also by the Barbizon school, especially Jean-François Millet, whose subject matter continued to exert an important influence on his work until the very end of his life.


Van Gogh presents the peasant woman frontally and from a close vantage point, lending her a quality of monumental self-containment. Bending forward, its outer edges clearly defined, the figure appears as the powerful lower half of a torso supported on clumsy clogs, with the slender upper body and head enclosed within its outline. Its volume is conveyed by a lively interaction between the plastic effect of blurred hatching and lighter areas produced by erasing. The vertical line of the strong arm reaching down to the ground to plant a potato in the prepared soil is echoed in the upright spade handle. It elucidates the action more directly than does the description of the background, just like the basket which, as a vessel, echoes the function of the hand holding the seed potatoes.


In his large drawings of solitary figures working in the fields, Van Gogh was responding directly to the inadequacies which others – and indeed he himself – saw in the bodies of the protagonists in his previously completed painting The Potato Eaters (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). As figures, the individuals in that picture were not what they were as heads, he wrote to his brother Theo. In the new drawings, he was starting the figures with the trunk of the body, »and that seems to me to make them fuller and broader.« What he wanted to achieve was »that everything is round, and the form has, as it were, no beginning or end, but instead is one harmonious living whole« (letter to his brother Theo van Gogh, c. 9 May 1885).


In 1908, at a time when works by Van Gogh were on display in the Berlin National Gallery – the first German museum collection to possess works by this artist – the Städelscher Museums-Verein acquired Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes and the painting Cottage in Nuenen for the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, both purchases being made in Paris. They were followed in 1911 by the late Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890), which was confiscated in 1937.

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