The Café Terrace

Like stepping into the painting… van Gogh10

Thats how it felt, visiting the café terrace in Arles, painted by van Gogh in 1888. Maybe not sitting at the same table, but seeing the same square, Place du Forum, and buildings that van Gogh once saw sitting at the café watching people passing by.

Vincent was enthusiastic about The Cafe Terrace and wrote to his sister Wil:

In point of fact I was interrupted these days by my toiling on a new picture representing the outside of a night cafe. On the terrace there are tiny figures of people drinking. An enormous yellow lantern sheds its light on the terrace, the house and the sidewalk, and even causes a certain brightness on the pavement of the street, which takes a pinkish violet tone. The gable-topped fronts of the houses in a street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars are dark blue or violet and there is a green tree. 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. They used to draw and paint the picture in the daytime after the rough sketch. But I find satisfaction in painting things immediately.
He continues, in this same letter,

You never told me if you had read Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-ami, and what you now think of his talent in general. I say this because the beginning of Bel-ami is precisely the description of a starry night in Paris, with the lighted cafés of the boulevard, and it’s something like the same subject that I’ve painted just now.

of drinkers in the harsh, bright lights of their illuminated facades. (Bel-ami)

The café has been renamed the Café Van Gogh, appropriately enough, and has been remodelled to appear as it did more than a century ago – yellow awning and all.
The painting can today be seen at Kröller-Müller museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Van Gogh was less enthusiastic about The Night Café. In a letter to his brother, Theo, he called it “the ugliest I’ve done”. He wrote:

In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur.

Prior to painting Night Café, Vincent wrote that he was planning to paint the room and the “Night prowlers” as he called those that spent the nights there. Van Gogh was interested in these people that stayed there because they “had no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” He imagined that they saw themselves as travelers without a native land, and he himself imagined himself the same way. While he didn’t see himself like them, he imagined having similar feelings.

Van Gogh spent three nights painting this room sleeping during the day. He saw this as showing “terrible human passions” and that one can “ruin themselves” in a place like this café.

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