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Sunday Supplement: The Sweet Potato Eaters

I have already referred enthusiastically, earlier in the week, to the socially insightful early masterpiece of Van Gogh – his dowdy, brown-shaded gathering of peasants, The Potato Eaters. So different from his later works, where all the melancholy and subdued tones of his earlier Dutch-based paintings seem to have been discarded, to be replaced with vivid multicoloured rainbow spectrums, flowers, landscapes and characterful people, despite the continuing melancholia escalating in his soul. Yet this painting is no less a masterpiece for its lack of colour, bandaged ears and sunflowers. True, this work would not sit so well on a chocolate box or mouse pad, but it is nevertheless a truly stunning painting to behold, and a truly genuine, authentic insight into the simple life of peasants.

Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Many things strike me about the work, and I can’t wait to see the original (hopefully) when I head to Amsterdam this week. I love the strong contrast between light and shade, the concentration of light in the centre of the table, drawing the viewer into this cosy, intimate scene. I like the faces of the peasants – coarse, worn down, but somehow contented with their humble dinner. And I love the surroundings, dark, dingy, but containing small trinkets demonstrative of the familial setting of the painting. All things combined, before even seeing the original, I was inspired to undertake a parody of the work back in 2010. Taking Van Gogh’s composition, I translated the scene into one of my family. In the painting is a self-portrait (far left) along with portraits of my mother, partner, sister and nephew. Instead of potatoes, we enjoy sweet potatoes, perhaps reminiscent of the better, sweeter life that we are lucky enough to have enjoyed compared to the peasants in Van Gogh’s original.

The Sweet Potato Eaters (after Van Gogh) (oil on canvas, 2010 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

In my painting, the room remains basically the same as Van Gogh’s, but I include a number of features pertaining to my family home – the retro 60s lamp which hangs in my parents dining room, the cuckoo clock which hangs in mine. On the wall is one of my paintings (Lighthouse II: Starry Night) the title of which also refers to a Van Gogh work. In the back room, my family piano features, while on the table, Van Gogh’s simple tea cups are replaced with the Arabia mugs which both my mother and I have a huge collection of – featuring illustrations of Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories. On the shelves, onions, garlic and chorizo represent our affinity, as a family, with Spain, while the shiny coffee maker represents my partner’s family living in Italy.

I took the unusual move, because of the size and scale of the project, of photographing my work as it progressed. I therefore have a series of 45 photos which show how I created the work, step by step. Hopefully this will feature (if I’ve got my technology right) as a slideshow below. I think it adds to the effect to speed up the slide show a bit by clicking on the right arrow – that way you really see the progress of the painting in fastfoward mode.

Enjoy the work, enjoy your Sunday and see you in… Amsterdam!!!

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