Van Gogh portrait of Potato Eater ‘Sien’ up for auction: bids from £1 million

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Head of a woman
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She is one of the figures depicted in The Potato Eaters and she was portrayed so often by Vincent van Gogh that it was whispered in Nuenen that the painter had made her pregnant. Today a portrait of Gordina or ‘Sien’ de Groot is being auctioned by safe house Christie’s.

The oil painting Head of a Woman is one of dozens of ‘heads’ of peasants that Van Gogh painted in Nuenen, where his parents lived, in the years 1884-85. This series of studies eventually resulted in the famous work The Potato Eaters (1885). Of all the studies of the Nuenen farmers, only the name of Sien de Groot is known.

Van Gogh painted Sien at least twenty times, which led to gossip in Nuenen, he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo. In September 1885 he complained that “the past two weeks I have been very much troubled by the Reverend Pastors”.

They warned him not to deal too familiarly “with people below my station”, Van Gogh wrote. But that was not all: a girl (Sien) whom he had often painted had a child, whom they said in Nuenen was his. The painter denied this and said she had heard from her herself that the real father was a member of the Nuenen parsonage.

An Eindhoven artist had DNA research done in 2021 to determine whether Van Gogh was telling the truth. To this end, DNA material from two of Sien de Groot’s great-grandchildren was compared with that of Lieuwe van Gogh, the son of filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh, who was murdered in 2004. He is a second, second, second cousin of the painter. The investigation showed that Vincent could not be the father.

Most expensive Van Gogh ever

Christie’s also writes about the stubborn Nuenen gossip. “While he (Van Gogh) vehemently denied these claims, this work nevertheless suggests that there was a tender bond between artist and model, evident in the power of her gaze.”

The painting Head of a Woman should fetch between 1.1 and 2.3 million euros (1-2 million pounds). According to an art historian and Van Gogh expert, this estimate indicates that the artist’s Dutch work is a lot less profitable than the works he made in the south of France at the end of his life.

Last year, a watercolor he made in the city of Arles sold for more than 31 million euros. The highest amount ever paid for a Van Gogh went to an oil painting, Portrait du dr. Gachet. It was auctioned in 1990 for the equivalent of 71.5 million euros.

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