Vincent often worked at the De Groot family's cottage, and it was there that he had the idea of painting The Potato Eaters. The family consisted of mother Cornelia; her children, Hendrikus, Peter and Gordina (Sien); and Gordina’s son, Cornelis. Vincent often made portraits of Gordina (1855–1927); at least twenty studies of her are known, and it is certain that she is one of the people depicted in The Potato Eaters.
Vincent’s acquaintance Willem van de Wakker recalled the work’s genesis. According to him, Vincent went
“one evening, after having painted outside all day, to the little house of the De Groot family, where he often worked, and came inside for a rest. The family was sitting together under a lamp and had begun to eat. Spontaneously, Vincent took up his canvas, brush and palette and began to paint the group.”
The Potato Eaters was the first work Vincent considered a real painting, in contrast to the many painted studies he had made. It brought together elements that had greatly concerned him, such as figure studies and the creation of contrasts between light and dark. In addition, The Potato Eaters fulfilled Vincent’s desire to produce a genuine painting of peasants:
“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and — that they have thus honestly earned their food.”
From his writing, it is clear that Vincent also sought greater meaning in the work:
“Painting peasant life is a serious thing, and I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings such that they give people who think seriously about art and about life serious things to think about.”
A few years later, in 1887, Vincent still regarded The Potato Eaters as one of his best paintings:
The painting is still considered Vincent's best work from his Dutch period. There are three different painted versions of The Potato Eaters: a sketch, a study and the final work. Vincent also produced a lithograph based on the study.