Van Gogh deliberately chose a composition which would challenge his growing prowess as a painter. Like the French master Jean-François Millet, Van Gogh wanted to be a true “peasant painter.”
This meant Van Gogh tried to paint his subjects with deep feeling, but without sentimentality. He spoke of them leading 'a way of life completely different from ours, from that of civilized people.' He strove to paint the faces, 'the color of a good, dusty potato, unpeeled naturally,' and to convey the idea that these people had 'used the same hands with which they now take food from the plate to dig the earth […] and had thus earned their meal honestly.'