For me the most compelling painting was this early work, The Potato Eaters, considered his first "great" painting (though there are many greats among his oeuvre), from his Dutch period. The exhibition at MOMA was the kind I like best, showing not only the paintings but in this case also preparatory studies as well as letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo and his sister Wil, in which he described what he was working on. The letters also occasionally included drawings.
This is what he wrote to Theo, on April 30, 1885, about his work on the painting of potato eaters: "The point is that I've tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned." You can certainly see the labor in the bony hands of the peasants reaching out for the potatoes on the plate. I also like the figure of the woman pouring what might be tea or coffee into very small cups. Food tastes good after hard physical work. So, why do we eat so much now (in the 21st century) when our labors are less physically arduous?
Credits: Van Gogh letter and images at WebExhibits