In the period 1883 – 1886, Van Gogh lived in Nuenen and Antwerp. It was at this time that he started painting using oil colors. The paintings by Van Gogh at this time were what you could call socially conscious. He focused on showing the life and plight of the rural population and how this life in many ways contrasted with that of the urban population. It was a fairly productive period for Vincent, in which he completed more than 200 paintings. However, with his focus on dark earthy tones, the paintings were not in the fashion of the times. As mentioned by his brother Theo, the art collectors of Paris were more interested in the bright modern paintings of the impressionists, rather than somber earthy tones and realistic peasant depictions that he produced.
However, the paintings of this early period are not without merit. A number of the works produced at this time are also today considered among the master pieces of Van Gogh. Among them we find “The Potato Eater”, probably his first truly major work and a good example of the realistic depictions of rural peasants that were his main subjects. The painting depicts just such a group of peasants as they sit down in the evening for some food. Both the depiction and the coloring are realistic and quite sobering. It is one of dark earthy tones, ugly faces and little joy. Most of the paintings during this period displayed similar sober scenes and motives, including his landscapes. As such, it is not hard to see why there can have been some trouble selling these works in a Paris fascinated by the bright art of impressionism.
The famous self-portrait “Still Life with Straw Hat and Pipe” was also produced at this time. While not exactly an explosion of colors, it is more in line with the later style of Van Gogh, including the very visible brush strokes that became his trademark. A last painting that deserve mention from this period, as much for its out of character feel as for its motive, is “Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette.” Apparently made as a comment upon the traditional teaching methods of art schools, the painting is very unlike most Van Gogh pieces in its choice of a fictive motive. Its elegant sarcasm has however also won it many fans as an usual but brilliant Van Gogh painting.
This phase of dark colors and somber depictions ended once Vincent went to Paris in 1886 and get inspired by the styles of the impressionists there. However, for those interested in looking into the early realistic mastery of Vincent Van Gogh, many of these works can today be found at the Van Gogh Museum in The Netherlands.