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Night cafe in Arles

Vincent van Gogh • Painting, September 1888, 80.7×65 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Genre scene, Urban landscape
Style of art: Post-Impressionism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: September 1888
Size: 80.7×65 cm
Artwork in selections: 373 selections

Description of the artwork «Night cafe in Arles»

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, is one of the most recognized and quoted works by Vincent van Gogh. Today it rivals only Sunflowers and Starry Night in terms of popularity. Due to its unusual depiction of a starry sky, the Café Terrace At Night echoes other paintings by the artist executed during the same period: Starry Night Over the Rhône and Portriat of Eugene Boch. Stars on these canvases are more like miniature flowers which in a year would produce ‘sunflower’ luminaries and spiral whirls of the Starry Night.

Vincent dreamt of producing a nocturnal landscape long before his move to Arles. Another canvas where he features starlit skies is the Starry Night Over the Rhône, created in the same month as the Café Terrace At Night.

There is a legend saying that Vincent van Gogh put candles in his straw hat to have enough light to paint this work on the spot at night. In a letter to his sister Wilhelmina, he wrote about this canvas: “Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square acquires a pale sulphur and greenish citron-yellow colour. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot.”

The artist painted the setting directly from his observations, right from the street at night. This practice he inherited from the Impressionists. However, unlike them, he did not render the scene merely as his eye observed it, but rather enlivened the image with his individual psychological reaction on it. His brushstrokes vibrate with the sense of excitement which Van Gogh experienced while painting the canvas.

By using contrasting colors and tones – dark-blue, green, violet and bright yellow – Vincent achieved a luminous surface that pulses with an intensive interior light. As an electric sun on the darkening sky does it shine on the nocturnal background. The lines of composition all point directly to the center of the work where a horse and a carriage are standing, drawing the eye along the pavement as if the viewer is strolling the cobblestone streets. However, the terrace, bathed in greenish citron-yellow light, attracts our attention even more than the objects on the vanishing point. Like being drawn into a vortex, we cannot take our eyes off it. And yet the overall balance of the tones in the painting suggests static equilibrium and tranquility.

More than one hundred years after Vincent depicted it, the Cafe Terrace is still in Arles at the same place. It's now called the «Le Café de la Nuit» (Cafe Van Gogh) by some farseeing owner. It has been remodeled to appear as it did more than a century ago: walls painted yellow with a yellow-lit awning. However, tourists who visited Arles in search of the famous terrace, will found themselves gravely disappointed. According to feedback from visitors, it’s a nice stop-off to take a picture, no more than that. Anyways, despite its high prices and the fact that services and quality of cuisine left much to be desired, flow of tourists still remains unchanged.

Vincent van Gogh's works were often inspired by literary references. The artist found the description of a similar café in the book Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant and told his sister Wil about it, " . . . a starlit night in Paris with the brightly lighted cafes of the Boulevard, and this is approximately the same subject I just painted." It needs to remark here that scholars state that Vincent was mistaken – in fact, the Maupassant reference he was thinking of is found in the novel Yvette.

Café Terrace At Night is one of those art works that give us food for thought. An independent researcher Jared Baxter suggested that this masterpiece might contain a homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-98). For him, a close study of the painting reveals that the main characters include one central figure with long hair surrounded by 12 individuals, plus a figure departing in the shadows. A longhaired figure, who is wearing a white tunic or an apron as the café’s waitress, he parallels to Jesus, 12 visitors – to the Apostles, and the figure in the doorstep he calls Judas. Theory of Baxter is backed by a number of experts, including the art historian Bill Kloss. All of them insist on close attention to details, namely to a number of crosses featuring in the painting. The most crucial one, formed by the muntin of a window, is placed right behind the central, longhaired figure.