In 1880 Vincent van Gogh decided to become an Artist. He was 27 years old at that time and had already been employed in a series of professions, as a lay preacher, a schoolmaster and an art dealer, none of which had provided a great success.
When he was starting out as an artist he used to practice by drawing landscapes, townscapes and, above all, drawing after a live model. He lived first in Brussels, then in Etten (with his parents) and from late 1881 in The Hague. It was there that he was given a few lessons by Anton Mauve, his cousin by marriage. His unorthodox relationship with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant, unmarried woman with a young daughter, alienated him from both Mauve and his parents.
In September 1883, Van Gogh broke off his relationship with Sien and went to Drenthe to paint landscapes and scenes depicting farmers at work. Van Gogh stayed less than three months in this remote province in the northeast of the Netherlands. Loneliness and the lack of materials and models drove him back to his parents, who in the meantime had moved to the village of Nuenen in Brabant.
In Nuenen, Van Gogh concentrated on depicting weavers behind their looms and farmers at work. Just like his much-admired predecessor Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), the famous French painter of peasant subjects, he wanted to represent the life of these simple, hard-working people. He also depicted the local landscape in his paintings and drawings, rendering it in the dark, somber colors.
In the winter of 1884-1885 Van Gogh painted more than 40 studies of the heads of farmers and farmers' wives, trying to capture their characteristic features. This series was a preparation for his first large figure piece: The Potato Eaters, (April 1885). The artist's intention was to make a very realistic 'peasant painting', without glamorizing their life. In order to show what he was capable of he chose a difficult composition for his figure piece. He had hoped his work would bring him success but instead it yielded only criticism.
In late 1885 Van Gogh went to Antwerp for a few months to take a course on figure painting at the Antwerp Academy of Art. His brother Theo, who had already been working for a number of years as an art dealer in Paris, had been writing him such interesting letters about the latest developments in art in he French capital that Vincent went to see for himself the following spring.