Aardappeleters | Amsterdam University Press Journals Online
Volume 5, Issue 3/4
  • ISSN: 2588-8277
  • E-ISSN: 2667-162X



In late nineteenth-century Dutch art criticism, the topic of ‘poor people eating potatoes’ seems to have been a kind of litmus test for modern, Realist art. It was a sign of the dissolution of the hierachy of the genres, the decline of idealist painting with its elevated, literary themes, and it marked the emerging popularity of commonplace subjects without specific moral meaning attached to them. Likewise, painting of romantic, picturesque landscapes gave way to the more prosaic theme of hard work in the field. Poor farm workers at their shabby meal of potatoes, the fruits of their labour, were part of this subject matter. ‘Modern’ critics welcomed the shift in topics, ‘conservative’ ones fulminated against what they saw as a sign of decay. Catalogues of Exhibitions of Living Artists (Tentoonstellingen van Levende Meesters) and other expositions have been searched for paintings showing potato eaters, or related images like potato peeling, planting, digging, or potato still lifes. Quantitatively, these exhibitions did not justify the art critics’ rhetoric. Qualitatively, the critics’ aversion to the ‘potato eating’ theme was possibly related to its association with poverty and the imminent physical and moral decay of the lower class of the population. In modern realistic literature potato consumption also stood for degeneration. Partly outside the official art circuity, artists like Mauve, Witsen, Toorop, and especially Van Gogh showed potato production and consumption as ‘The Heroism of Daily Life’.


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