Without the obsessive regime of self-instruction and direct observation from nature that typified his Nuenen period, it is doubtful we would know Vincent van Gogh today. A late starter, the almost 30-year-old van Gogh made up for lost artistic time in a fever of drawing and painting that culminated in his first masterpiece, 'The potato eaters', finished in 1885. Between December 1884 and the completion of this rustic nocturne, he produced forty bust-length portraits of peasant types: a series of Heads of the People as it were. Van Gogh's socialist sympathies are apparent in every one. Vigorously brushed and soberly coloured, they take substance from the darkness around them. Fiery highlights on flesh and fabric suggest lamplight. Indeed, 'The potato eaters' is lit by paraffin. The present brooding study in all likelihood shows Antonius van Rooij, paterfamilias of the group. Van Gogh yearned to share in the social simplicity and moral certainty of this man. That he could not do so, though painful to him, left open the way to art.

AGNSW Handbook, 1999.


  • Title: Head of a peasant
  • Creator: Vincent van Gogh
  • Date Created: 1884
  • Physical Dimensions: 39.4 x 30.2 cm stretcher; 59.3 x 50.0 x 7.5 cm frame
  • Provenance: G. Albert Aurier (France, d.1892), 1890-1892, Chateauroux/France, acquired through Theo van Gogh Mrs S. Williame-Aurier (France), post 1892, Chateauroux/France Mrs E. Mahe-Williame (France), pre 01 Jul 1970, Aix-en-Provence/France, sold Sotheby's London, 1 July 1970 Private Collection, post 01 Jul 1970, England Hilmar Reksten, pre 02 Apr 1990, Norway, Sold Christie's London, 2 April 1990 'Impressionist and Modernist Paintings and Sculpture', lot no. 19, 'Property from the Hilmar Reksten Collection, sold on behalf of the bankrupt estate of the late Hilmar Reksten'. Christie's London, 02 Apr 1990, London/England, Purchased by the AGNSW from Christie's London, 2 April 1990 'Impressionist and Modernist Paintings and Sculpture' lot 19
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation Purchase 1990
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Signature & Date: Not signed. Not dated.
  • Object Other Titles: Head of a peasant: Study for 'The Potato Eaters'
  • Artist Country: Netherlands

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