Potatoes and the Arts
During its colourful history the potato has been the subject of many forms of art.
The earliest known association between the potato and visual arts is found on ceramics created by South American Indian civilizations several centuries ago. Archaeological discoveries from that era in Peru and Bolivia include pottery on which the potato is depicted. Various forms of vases were frequently used in religious ceremonies and funeral rites in these Andean regions of South America. Such vessels, filled with different foods, were also placed in graves along with the dead. Occasionally, this pottery portrayed human figures, but nevertheless with the characteristics of potato tubers such as eyes and knobs.
Pot showing a figure of a person made of tubers with eyes on face and body (approx. 200 A.D.), right, and ceramic storage vessel modeled on the well-known ancient potato cultivar “Huayro” which is still being grown in the Peruvian Andes (approx. 600-800 A.D.), left.
When the Spanish invaded Peru, the historian Poma de Ayala, in 1613, described the various activities of the Incan civilization in great detail. This included an agricultural calendar in which de Ayala described the various activities of the Peruvians during each month of the year. These descriptions were accompanied by hundreds of drawings. One of these drawings shows the harvest of potatoes in the month of June.
Poma de Ayala’s depiction of the Incan potato harvest.
The Potato in Literature and Music
Thomas Moore, the bard of Ireland, praised the potato in a humorous and somewhat whimsical poem:
I’m a careless potato and care not a pin
How into existence I came;
If they planted me drill-wise or dribbled me in, To me ’tis exactly the same.
The bean and the pea may more loftily tower, But I care not a button for them;
Defiance I not with my beautiful flower When the earth is hoed up to my stem.
In terms of music, the potato has also been featured in several songs in different languages. Perhaps the most popular Canadian song featuring the potato is “Bud the Spud,” by Stompin’ Tom Connors:
It’s bud the spud from the bright red mud
Rollin’ down the highway smiling—
The spuds are big on the back of Bud’s rig
And they’re from Prince Edward Island, they’re from Prince Edward Island.
Several potato proverbs extol the down-to-earth wisdom of simple farm folk. An American proverb has it that, “A man who prides himself on his ancestry is like the potato—the best part is underground.” And German farm wisdom argues that, “The dumbest farmer has the biggest potatoes.”
The Painted Potato
There are many paintings where the potato is the focus. In others, it is part of the background, where the respective artist describes the rural way of life. In some of these paintings, art and religion are intertwined. Perhaps in no other classical paintings is this relationship expressed more strongly than in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters and Jean-François Millet’s L’Angelus.
Van Gogh began his artistic career by making drawings and paintings of the simple life of peasants, both at home and at work. He painted several works which displayed their struggle for existence and thus stirred the conscience of society to improve the lot of the poor.
The Potato Eaters
Since the potato played such a dominant role in the lives of these people, it is no surprise that many of his paintings involve the potato. They include Woman Harvesting Potatoes, Woman Peeling Potatoes and Basket With Potatoes. He completed The Potato Eaters after several preliminary drafts. Van Gogh’s own comments about this painting say it all: “I have tried to make it clear how those people, eating their potatoes under the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish and so it speaks of manual labour and how they honestly earned their food.”
Millet’s painting of the L’Angelus has more obvious religious overtones.
The Angelus was a centuries-old prayer custom which was initiated (often three times a day—morning, noon and evening) by the ringing of the village church bells. In ancient times the ringing of bells was often associated with angelic greetings, hence the name “Angelus.” In this painting, a man and a woman—humble farm folks—are praying at the end of a day’s work in the field. A basket of potatoes stands at the woman’s feet and a wheelbarrow loaded with bags (presumably filled with potatoes) is standing at her right. One can almost hear the bells ringing from the church in the distance.
Hielke De Jong is a retired Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada potato breeder, consultant and co-author of The Complete Book of Potatoes: What Every Grower and Gardener Needs to Know.
- R. N. Salaman. 1970. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Fig. 17.
- International Potato Center.
- J. Reader. 2008. Propitious Esculent: The potato in world history. Heinemann, London.
- Wikimedia Commons.
- Wikimedia Commons.