‘I have always looked on printing as a miracle, as much a miracle as a seed of corn becoming an ear. An everyday miracle – and all the greater for being everyday. You sow one drawing on the stone or in the etching plate and you harvest a multitude. Can you not understand that it is something I think about a great deal when I am working and that I love it greatly? Be that as it may, my main concern now is to ensure that the seed (the drawings themselves) improves in quality, and even if it does take a little longer I will be content if it improves the harvest, but I have my eye constantly on that harvest.’ (1)
Despite a fairly modest output of nine lithographs and one etching, the above quote from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo shows the importance he attached to printmaking in the 1880s. At the time, nearly a century after its invention, lithography was going through a period in the artistic wilderness. Etching and wood-engraving had become the techniques of choice for artists and illustrators and lithographic production was demoted to the creation of maps and greetings cards.
For van Gogh, however, it had distinct advantages, both aesthetic and economic. From an artistic standpoint it suited his vigorous, spontaneous drawing style and did not require him to adapt to the very different lines of etched copper or engraved wooden blocks. In economic terms, lithographs were cheap to produce, particularly in quantity, and the quality of impressions did not degrade with repeated printing (as with etching). The use of transfer paper meant he could work wherever he wanted, without having to send bulky (and expensive) lithographic stones to the printer.
Eight of his nine lithographs were made in The Hague between November 1882 and July 1883. Always short of money, van Gogh did not have the funds to print very many, but commercial success was not his primary objective at this point – it was to train himself in the new medium in advance of a project he had formulated in the early 1880s. This was to create a series of thirty figure studies suitable for distribution in the popular press, of the type then fashionable in England. Van Gogh had a strong democratic, not to say socialistic attitude to the place of art in society and his plan was founded on the belief that the ‘ordinary man’ deserved affordable, high-quality works of art. The noble scheme eventually came to nothing, defeated by his perennial lack of funds and the absence of a suitable publication in the Netherlands.
His time as a lithographer did not end there, however. He made one last attempt with The Potato Eaters. The motivation here was recognition, or rather the lack of it. One of the primary roles of printmaking throughout the centuries has been the creation and enhancement of artistic reputation, and van Gogh had always been aware of this aspect. Now it became his primary concern. He had begun experimenting with photography to reproduce several works as calling cards for distribution to potential patrons, but with his growing maturity as an artist he felt the need for a more fitting form of reproduction. He returned to printmaking, and decided to create a lithographic version of a major oil painting he was already engaged in – The Potato Eaters, 1885, now in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. This print was not, however, intended for publication, but was, as he put it in a letter to Theo, completely private. ‘The print was to give to his and his brother’s friends, an idea of is painted masterpiece, rather like an oversized, artistic birth announcement card.’ (2) In the same letter, he defiantly added ‘I will lithograph what I want to lithograph’ (ibid) whether or not it was commercially successful. In spite of this defiant defense, The Potato Eaters was to be his last lithograph. In subsequent years, particularly after his time in Paris, he became disillusioned at the costs of printmaking, modest as they were, and the prospect of public indifference. When in spring 1888 Gauguin invited van Gogh to participate in a print portfolio along with other members of the artistic colony in Brittany, van Gogh refused. In an interesting post-script, in January 1889 Gauguin wrote saying that, on Theo’s advice, he had decided to take up printmaking.
Given the economic pressures van Gogh endured throughout his life, all his prints were made in small numbers and nothing resembled a formal edition. It is thought that ‘several dozen’ impressions of the present work were made. Van Hughten and Pabst, in their indispensable catalogue of van Gogh’s graphic work, cite seventeen, possibly eighteen surviving impressions, of which fifteen are in museums, principally The Van Gogh Museum. This impression is listed as number 9 in their census.
Literature: The Graphic Work of Vincent van Gogh, Sjraar van Hughten and Fieke Pabst, The Van Gogh Museum in cooperation with the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Waanders Publishers, Zwolle, 1995. (1) pp. 19. (2) pp 26.