Van Gogh had a place in his heart for the peasants, the poor and the outcasts. It can be seen in several of his paintings especially from 1881 to 1890 where these people are the main subject matter of his paintings. In one of his letters to his brother Theo, he writes “I want to go through the joys and sorrows of domestic life.” He wants his paintings to convey the themes of everyday life of common folk. During this time, he paints a lot of portraits of farmers and peasants as well as landscape paintings with people working on the fields and laboring for their food. His First Steps, after Millet gives us a good depiction of these themes with a peasant family on a regular afternoon laboring in the backyard but they pause their daily work to experience the joys of their child’s first steps. This is a painting that he copied from one of his admired artists, Millet, who also had similar themes in his paintings. It is interesting to see that most of these paintings capture a moment in these people’s lives when they are doing an everyday activity and one can almost be a part of those activities through the window that Van Gogh provides to us.
First Steps, after Millet, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, Oil on Canvas, 64.165.2
Van Gogh painted this while he was in the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy. He had just heard about the birth of his nephew and sent this to his brother Theo and his wife. This is a good depiction of post-impressionism with an independent artistic style and concentrating on themes of deeper symbolism. It gives us a window to the daily lives of a peasant family as they work to support their livelihoods but at the same time enjoy the beauty of life through their child’s first steps.
The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885, Oil on Canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Van Gogh wanted to depict the peasants as they really were. He wanted the people to see that these peasants who are sitting in front of this little lamp had to work hard on the ground to harvest these potatoes that they are now able to enjoy. He deliberately chose his models to be real-life peasants who are not the most good-looking bunch but represent reality. He wanted this to be a window for the civilized people to see this totally different way of life from what they are used to.
This is another good example of Van Gogh’s attempt to depict reality of the peasant life in his paintings. In this painting, he opens a window for us to observe what a normal day on the field looks like for these peasant women. This is a simple scene yet it invites the viewer to be a part of it. He sent this to his mother and sister writing, “I hope that the painting of the women in the olive trees will be a little to your taste—I sent [a] drawing of it to Gauguin, . . . and he thought it good. . . .”
Van Gogh painted this right after he completed the Potato Eaters and is very similar to that painting as it is painted in the same dark hues. He does not want to portray these peasants in any other way than what is real. This is an indoors scene and he wants the viewer to see the lack of good lighting in the house. He also wants the models to be real peasants whose concerns about beauty are non existent and he wants to paint them in their coarseness. He compares it to a stable smelling like manure and says that that is the purpose of a stable.
This is an outside scenery of a very vibrant and moving field. In this Van Gogh depicts rural life in action. Although there is only one person in the painting, it seems like the whole scenery is alive. Rather than depicting the hard aspects of peasant life, Gogh depicts the normalcy of it. It opens a window to the viewers to experience what a normal day in peasant life looks like. This would be something very different and new to the civilized people in the cities.
Head of a Peasant with a Pipe, Vincent Van Gogh, 1885, Oil on Canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
This is one of the many portraits of peasants done by Vincent Van Gogh. He was studying about peasants during this time. He wanted to depict them in their raw and coarse state. He wanted the world to see the reality of these people who work hard for the food that they eat from the grounds that they till themselves. This is in the style of realism and a pipe in hand puts into perspective the daily activities of these peasants.