Van Gogh painted one of his most important works, the gloomy and realistic "Potato Eaters", in Nuenen. I visit this small Dutch town to discover the roots of the painting.
Before Van Gogh came to Amsterdam, he spent two years in Nuenen, a tiny village some 120 km south of Amsterdam, where his father was a pastor. I reach the village by bus from the city of Eindhoven, just a 15-minute ride.
The Vincentre in the village of Nuenen is dedicated to the artist’s time here, of which The Potato Eaters – his dark painting of peasants sharing a simple meal – was the highlight. “Its darkness and spiritual depth evoke Rembrandt, one of Van Gogh’s favorite artists,” says art historian Marie Hoedemaker.
Ton De Brouwer, chairman of the Nuenen Foundation that helped set up the center, is also a Van Gogh expert. “Van Gogh was training to be a Protestant pastor but Nuenen was where he really became a painter instead,” he says. “He still wanted to use his talent to say something to people. The Potato Eaters is the most important painting of that time. It was the finishing touch to his awakening as an artist and was behind his decision to move to a big city where he could find buyers for his work.”
From the Vincentre, a series of walks takes me past buildings and views that are recognizable from Vincent’s work, including water mills, windmills and cottages. The Reformed Church looks just as in his painting of it and I can see why he was drawn to tall buildings and high poplar trees in this flat landscape.
At lunch in a local restaurant, I note how a small glass of white wine stands at every elbow and that almost every customer – almost all elderly – wears spectacles. Well dressed and good mannered, they engage in quiet conversation and eat hearty tuna salads.
The faces, however, are instantly recognizable; they share the same features that Van Gogh captured so memorably in The Potato Eaters. Through the centuries, the accessories and clothes might change, but the Dutch land, the light and the people have stayed the same.