Without the obsessive regime of self-instruction and direct observation from nature that typified his Nuenen period, it is doubtful we would know Vincent van Gogh today. A late starter, the almost 30-year-old van Gogh made up for lost artistic time in a fever of drawing and painting that culminated in his first masterpiece, 'The potato eaters', finished in 1885. Between December 1884 and the completion of this rustic nocturne, he produced forty bust-length portraits of peasant types: a series of Heads of the People as it were. Van Gogh's socialist sympathies are apparent in every one. Vigorously brushed and soberly coloured, they take substance from the darkness around them. Fiery highlights on flesh and fabric suggest lamplight. Indeed, 'The potato eaters' is lit by paraffin. The present brooding study in all likelihood shows Antonius van Rooij, paterfamilias of the group. Van Gogh yearned to share in the social simplicity and moral certainty of this man. That he could not do so, though painful to him, left open the way to art.
AGNSW Handbook, 1999.
Head of a peasant: Study for 'The Potato Eaters'
oil on canvas
39.4 x 30.2 cm stretcher; 59.3 x 50.0 x 7.5 cm frame
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation Purchase 1990
Shown in 4 exhibitions
Shell presents Van Gogh: his sources, genius and influence:
- National Gallery of Victoria [St Kilda Road], Melbourne 19 Nov 1993–16 Jan 1994
- Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane 22 Jan 1994–13 Mar 1994
Great gifts, great patrons, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 Aug 1994–19 Oct 1994
Van Gogh: Face to Face:
- Detroit Institiute of Arts, Detroit 12 Mar 2000–04 Jun 2000
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston 02 Jul 2000–24 Sep 2000
- Philadelphia Museum of Art, United States of America 22 Oct 2000–14 Jan 2001
Vincent van Gogh: Timeless country - modern city, Complesso Monumentale del Vittoriano, Rome, 07 Oct 2010–20 Feb 2011
G. Albert Aurier (France, d.1892), 1890-1892, Chateauroux/France, acquired through Theo van Gogh
Mrs S. Williame-Aurier (France), post 1892, Chateauroux/France
Mrs E. Mahe-Williame (France), pre 01 Jul 1970, Aix-en-Provence/France, sold Sotheby's London, 1 July 1970
Private Collection, post 01 Jul 1970, England
Hilmar Reksten, pre 02 Apr 1990, Norway, Sold Christie's London, 2 April 1990 'Impressionist and Modernist Paintings and Sculpture', lot no. 19, 'Property from the Hilmar Reksten Collection, sold on behalf of the bankrupt estate of the late Hilmar Reksten'.
Christie's London, 02 Apr 1990, London/England, Purchased by the AGNSW from Christie's London, 2 April 1990 'Impressionist and Modernist Paintings and Sculpture' lot 19
Referenced in 19 publications
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Great gifts, great patrons: an exhibition celebrating private patronage of the Gallery, Sydney, 1994. no pagination or catalogue numbers
Edmund Capon, Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation Annual Report 1997, Sydney, 1997, 16 (colour illus.).
Christie's London (Editor), Christie's London: Impressionist and Modern Paintings and Sculpture, London, 02 Apr 1990, 50 (colour illus.), 51. cat.no. 19
Complesso Monumentale del Vittoriano, Vincent van Gogh: Timeless Country - Modern City, 2010, 126 (colour illus.), 237. cat.no.26
Kevin Connor, Look, ‘The art that made me’, Sydney, May 2016, pp 12–13: p 13, col illus p 13.
J.B. de la Fialle, The works of Vincent Van Gogh, his paintings and drawings, London, 1970, 96 (illus.). cat.no. 160a, as collection of Mrs E. Mahe-Williame, Aix-en-Provence.
Renée Free, AGNSW Collections, 'The Western Heritage, Renaissance to Twentieth Century', pg. 108-172, Sydney, 1994, 140, 141 (colour illus.).
S. Helliesen, Hilmar Rekstens Samlinger, Norway, Unknown, (illus.). cat.no. 25
Jan Hulsker, The complete van Gogh; paintings, drawings, sketches, Oxford, 1980, 129 (illus.). cat.no. 563, dated as December 1884, whereabouts unknown.
Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein, Sjraar van Heugten and Marije Vellekoop, Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings, New York, 2005, 108 (illus.). fig.99, illustrated in reference to cat.no. 25 'Head of man' 1884-1885, collection Van Gogh Museum
Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Western Collection: Paintings and Sculpture', pg. 17-77, Sydney, 1999, 46 (colour illus.).
George S. Keyes, Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits, 'The Dutch roots of Vincent van Gogh', pg. 21-49, Detroit, 2000, 39 (colour illus.), 40. fig.no. 18
P. Lecaldano, L'opera pittorica completa di van Gogh, Milan, 1977, 102 (illus.). cat.no. 143
John Rewald, Post-Impressionism from Van Gogh to Gauguin, New York, 1956, 36 (illus.). Private collection, Aix-en-Provence
Judith Ryan (Editor), Shell presents Van Gogh: his sources, genius and influence, Sydney, 1993, 70, 71 (colour illus.). cat.no. 30
Louis van Tilborgh, The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh, Netherlands, 1993, 92 (illus.). cat.no. 15
Michael Wardell, Look, 'Foundation building', pg.14-17, Sydney, Sep 2004, 15.
Unknown and Michael Brand, Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation: Celebrating 30 years of art acquisitions, Sydney, 2015, p 12, col illus p 12.
Editor Unknown (Editor), Art and Australia (Vol. 28, No. 3), Sydney, Autumn 1991, 338 (illus.). cat.no. 1