Opinion  November 18, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: Famine Depicted Throughout Art History

Van Gogh Museum, Netherlands.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885.

The November 2021 Focus for Reframed is Feasts and Famine.

The art market’s output is not decided by artists. It is the collectors who dictate what artworks are created. This is a market, after all. There are far fewer works portraying starvation and famine than showing the pleasures of feasts and fun. With digging, significant works depicting famine in Western society can be discovered.

Easily the most famous depiction of famine in art history is Vincent van Gogh’s 1885 oil painting, The Potato Eaters. At the time of its creation, the phrase "potato eater" was considered pejorative in both Dutch and German.

In the twenty-first century, when practically everything is politicized, it is noteworthy that, in the 1800s, food was one of the most politically charged topics in Western Europe. Citrus fruits were considered the domain of the wealthy, while vegetables grown underground, such as potatoes and beets, were considered literally beneath the dignity of the rich man’s feet.

The politics of Van Gogh’s potato-eating peasants extended to American artwork, as well. De Scott Evans, whom we covered in our previous column on feasts, also portrayed famines, most notably in his circa 1885 trompe-l'œil work The Irish Question.

Art Institute of Chicago.

De Scott Evans, The Irish Question, 1885.

Ireland’s Great Famine, or Gorta Mór, was arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in recent Western history. Roughly a quarter of Ireland’s population immigrated or died due to disease in the 1840s and 50s. Anyone today visiting Boston notes the pride of the city’s Irish descendants but, at the time of their nineteenth-century arrival, the diaspora was unwelcome.

When Evans created his painting, potatoes had transformed in America from a neutral food to a politicized one. The Irish famine had led many Americans to see potatoes as toxic due to Irish immigration.

The Irish Potato Famine did not result in war, though it did cause political unrest. This was not the case for the Great Depression in Germany, which resulted in polarization on both the far-left and far-right and a national famine. Käthe Kollwitz, a prominent female artist, warned of this crisis in several woodcuts. She employed the medium, due to its coarse, harsh lines, to convey tension held in the bodies of starving parents in 1922’s The Mothers, and in 1897’s Misery (In Need).

  Käthe Kollwitz, Misery (In Need), 1897
Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg

Käthe Kollwitz, Misery (In Need), 1897.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Mothers, 1922.
U.S. Library of Congress.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Mothers, 1922. 

Though Kollwitz created her series on famine independently, she was a Communist sympathizer.

Can propaganda have artistic merit?

Kollwitz’s work seems to indicate, "yes." Though her works were politically motivated, they were executed with technical precision deeply rooted in German art’s tradition of woodcuts and lithographs.

U.S. Library of Congress / Museum of Modern Art, New York

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.

Not so is the case for Dorothea Lange’s 1936 iconic photograph Migrant Mother. Promoted as a documentarian work, the piece is more propaganda, or stylized art. Working for the U.S. Government to promote Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration, Lange purposefully chose the model for her photogenic features and posed the woman’s children to obstruct their faces, even asking them to move out of the frame for several shots.

Lange’s disturbing yet aesthetically pleasing work, and the other works featured in this column, demonstrate a genuine fact about human nature.

Even as people view artwork inspired by such a terrible, traumatizing topic as famine, we still are demonstrably drawn to artwork that is visually attractive.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Art and Object Marketplace - A Curated Art Marketplace