Sometimes there is a piece of art that sticks with you. For me, that piece is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters.
I’ve never known why, but every time I am in the same building as the earthy-coloured painting, it is the one that I spend the most time in front of. So it came as a surprise when I learned that The Potato Eaters had been based on an actual family–De Groot van Rooij–in Nuenen, a Dutch town in the province of North Brabant, about an hour and 20 minutes from where I lived.
It wasn’t Vincent’s intention to create accurate portraits of this family. He was aiming to show how harsh and arduous country life was. A family so poor that there are potatoes on the table rather than bread; and sharp boney fingers and faces rather than round plump ones. In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh explained:
“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and that they have thus honestly earned their food.”
The Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th-century. Despite a slow, distrustful start, the potato soon became an important food staple. However, in 1845 the Dutch potato crop was attacked by fungus. In a country estimated to be the most potato-dependent European country (after Ireland), the potatoes in Van Gogh’s 1885 painting take on even more significance and importance. As the potato fields began to flourish once again, peasant country life (and diet) remained frugal and hard.
Nowadays the house of the potato eaters no longer exists. There is one similar, near Vincentre–a museum dedicated to Vincent, his family, his life, and his work. Other moments from his life can also be found in Nuenen–the watermill he painted, the house he shared with his family, and a tree-framed view of the local church, from the back garden.
And when you are done exploring, you can head to De Aardappeleters (in Dutch: The Potato Eaters) and indulge in a portion of fries, in Vincent’s honour.
Pack Your Bags
Nuenen is situated towards the south-east of the Netherlands. With chilly winters and temperate summers the best months to visit are March through September. Rain and chilly nights are not unusual, so be sure to pack rain gear and something a little warmer for the evenings. The Netherlands is on European Standard Time (EST) and is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), in the summer months you can enjoy long, light evenings. Throughout the Netherlands the Euro (EUR) is the official currency.
Nuenen is about a 12-minute drive from the Dutch city of Eindhoven. There are various (free) parking spaces around “the park” in the centre of Nuenen. There are also four car parks about 150 metres away. If you are travelling by public transport, you will want to take the train to Eindhoven Central Station. From there bus lines 21, 22, 121, and 122 will all get you to Nuenen.
There are no fewer than 23 locations in Nuenen with a direct link to Van Gogh. Fourteen of these locations were painted by Van Gogh and have not changed since then. You can guide yourself around these locations via the information poles throughout the town. Each one provides further information in both Dutch and English. A major highlight is Van Gogh’s former family home.
Opwetten Water Mill was one of the locations Vincent Van Gogh painted and drew. It is only a short bike ride from Nuenen’s centre. It is also a great place to sit, relax, and enjoy something to eat.
This is the area of the sparkly Van Gogh – Roosegaarde bicycle path, which is based on the painting Starry Night by Van Gogh.
For more information about Nuenen, be sure to visit the Van Gogh Village Nuenen website and/or the information desk at Vincentre.