From Palate To Palette: Let's Gogh For Dinner

WHAT do potatoes, pears, apples, grapes, bloaters (cured — smoked and lightly salted — herrings), absinthe and coffee have in common? They’re all items of food and drink that featured in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. As the book ‘Van Gogh’s Table’ describes, the artist’s paintings of food closely mirrored his own life experiences. 

Thus, when he painted The Potato Eaters (1885), it was a reflection of time he spent living with a poor family in Holland. His diet was perforce simple, even austere. A crust of dry bread, a little coffee — these formed the mainstay of his meals. Potatoes and chestnuts offered some variation in his repasts. The young Vincent had nursed the desire to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher; his frugal eating habits were an offshoot of his efforts towards cultivating a spiritual bent of mind. Over the entire winter of 1885, he remarked to his brother Theo that he had eaten “only three warm meals”, making do with bread for the rest.

When he moved to France, and especially over his last years in the vicinity of Paris, it signaled a shift in the artist’s attitude towards food as well. Here, he encountered the vibrant and artsy French cafe culture, and like the peers he now began to meet, van Gogh too learnt to savour meat, vegetables, cheeses and unfussy desserts. The cheery eateries he saw — cafes, diners, restaurants etc — made their way onto his canvases now. (See ‘A Table In Front Of A Window With A Glass Of Absinthe’, painted 1887, and ‘The Night Cafe’ from 1888.) 

Also among the subjects of his artistic interest were the Sunday afternoon meals he had at the home (where he resided for a while) of his homeopath and friend Dr Paul Gachet. Van Gogh dined often with Dr Gachet’s family, and ‘Van Gogh’s Table’ includes recipes for the meal served at a birthday celebration, including “asparagus with Hollandaise sauce; filet of striped bass with pan-fried leeks and Beurre Blanc (classic French butter sauce); roast duck with chanterelle (wild mushroom) fricassee; cherry clafouti (baked dessert, with a layer of flan-like batter on top of black cherries) and more. (See ‘Marguerite Gachet in the Garden’, 1890.)

Not that van Gogh would have been very pleased with such hearty fare; for, as he noted in a letter — “For me it is pure vexation to eat there (with the Gachets') in the evening or afternoon, because the good man goes to great lengths in order to prepare meals of four or five courses”.

Van Gogh had a complicated view of food: the compulsion to spend his limited financial resources on art supplies, his poor health and growing conviction that his extreme fasts had led to it... these were just a few of his preoccupations. Nourishing food that was easy on the stomach, the painter came to believe, was crucial to maintain wellness of body and mind — although he qualified it with the need for moderation. As he confided to a friend: “I’m beginning to believe more and more that food has something to do with our power to think and to make paintings; as for me, it doesn’t contribute to the success of my work if my stomach’s bothering me.”