Illustration Series

Welcome to our guest column series "Drawn from Memory: Reflections on the Art of Illustration."

JJ Books has invited well known writers to recall images that have inspired their work, from Brahma to Beardsley and beyond.


Best selling novelist Thrity Umrigar says she can't forget a famous painting she first saw as a young girl growing up in Bombay.

Image used with kind permission of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Click on the image above to view a larger version.

I don't remember what attracted me first – the image or its title. The Potato Eaters. I had never heard of so humble and common a title. And the general darkness of the painting itself, with its five characters, their hardscrabble lives visible on each worried and solemn face.

I was thirteen years old when I first saw that painting. I had recently finished Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, his biography of Vincent van Gogh. I was a middle-class kid in Bombay, with secret aspirations to be a writer, to inhabit a world different from the aspirational, business-oriented world in which I was growing up. I sensed, uneasily, that I was different from the people around me, people who I loved but whose definitions of success I was already unable to share.

And then I read Lust for Life and everything just clicked in place. I could identify so strongly with the misfit Van Gogh, his alienation, and his unease with the bourgeois world of his family. Next thing, I was buying every book of his paintings that I could afford.

Of course, the radiance of his paintings—those bright, manic swirls, that pulsating sun, those brilliant sunflowers—blew me away. But what really drew my attention and captured my imagination was the painting, The Potato Eaters. Although the five figures in the painting are European peasants, somehow the painting evoked the despair and fatigue that I saw on the faces of urban slum dwellers in my home town of Bombay. The lack of illumination, the muted tone, the play between dark shadows and dim light, all screamed ‘Poverty,’ to me. It was my first experience with illustration as narrative. This
painting spoke to me, told me a story, permitted me to imagine the daily lives of these five people. They became more than still figures in a painting; they became characters in an active, moving, unfolding story.

The other thing that this painting demonstrated to me was dignity and unsentimentality. There is nothing patronising about this picture. Van Gogh does not objectify his subjects. Rather, he meets them at eye level, allows them to express their simple, basic humanity. This is a lesson that I have tried to imitate in my own novels.

I was lucky enough to have been introduced to Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in general and to this painting in particular, when I was living in relative isolation and innocence. I had no idea that my strong identification with Van Gogh’s life, would be a ingredient for parody in today’s ironic, cynical world. Or that I was one of millions of people the world over, who loved this particular painter. No, I came to The Potato Eaters pure and untainted by cynicism. For this reason, it will always be a painting that I will treasure.

View all the illustrations in this series on the JJ Books Pinterest page.

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