Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" on a postage stamp

A bookmark drawn by the hand of Vincent Van Gogh is on display now, after over 230 years tucked away – where else – in a book.

In June 1883, Vincent Van Gogh lent a novel to his friend, the Dutch artist Anthon van Rappard. The novel, Histoire d’un Paysan (Story of a Peasant) by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, told the story of an Alsace peasant witnessing the French Revolution, and it was beautifully illustrated by Théophile Schuler. Van Gogh was enchanted with the novel.

“I do think you’ll find the Erckmann-Chatrian beautiful,” Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his friend. But the charms of the book are not why it is in the news today.

Van Rappard died young, just 33, and his wife Henriëtte kept the book, then passed it to her family. In 2019, the family sold the book to the Van Gogh museum, and not only for its story or the distinctive “Vincent” penned with a blot of ink on the title page.

Preserved between the pages of the two-century-old novel has been a thin slip of paper, its edges brown with age, with three figures sketched on it in casual pencil strokes. Just people going about their daily business. Experts in Van Gogh’s life and art date the drawing to some time in late 1881, when Van Gogh was living with his parents in Etten, the same year he set out to become an artist. In that time, his entire artistic focus was on capturing scenes of the local peasants at work and at rest.

The three sketches, which experts agree were deliberately drawn and cut to be a bookmark, have just gone up on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, They’ll remain on display there until 12 September 2021. The three are among the earliest samples of Vincent Van Gogh’s informal sketches, few of which have survived. They precede The Potato Eaters by 4 years, and Starry Night Over the Rhone by 7 years.

Image: Mirt Alexander /