At age 30, in December 1883, Van Gogh followed his family to the Dutch pastoral village of Nuenen. While he had a fraught relationship with his parents, the painter established his own private studio space on their property—in the former laundry room—where he could work in peace. He also cemented a business arrangement with his brother, Theo, that provided him with financial stability and calmed his nerves; Theo, who was an art dealer, would send Van Gogh a regular allowance in exchange for any paintings he produced.
In this stable and mostly calm environment, Van Gogh made strides in his work. He spent concentrated time perfecting his oil technique. Landscapes from 1884, which depict the surrounding countryside and the church where his father was a pastor, show the artist experimenting with modulation of color and the representation of glowing, autumnal light. Peasant life also provided endless artistic fodder for Van Gogh, and inspired what Bailey considers his first masterpiece: The Potato Eaters (1885). With a dusky palette, thick brushwork, and exaggerated figures, he depicted a lively peasant dinner table. He wanted the work to be gritty and honest, harnessing the “smells of bacon, smoke, potato-steam,” he explained. “These folk…have tilled the earth themselves with these hands…so it speaks of MANUAL LABOUR and––that they have thus honestly earned their food.”
Autumn Landscape (1885), one of the last paintings Van Gogh created in Nuenen, flaunts his artistic growth during his two years in the town. The composition is more detailed than past landscapes, and his hues more luminous. “My palette is thawing,” he wrote to Theo around the time he completed the piece, “and the bleakness of the earliest beginnings has gone.”