There is a cliché that says the candle burns brightest just before it goes out. That could apply to Vincent Van Gogh and his time spent in Arles. It is during this chaotic period at the end of his life that he painted the most iconic works that we associate with the artist and that includes this work called café terrace at night painted in September 1888. It’s a fix of a popular coffee shop along the route of Palais. It is a painting of stark contrasts. There is a bright light at the café versus the darkness of the street. The warm artificial light versus the cool light at night sky. The crowd seated at the tables versus the related emptiness of the street. The eye is drawn around the campus through the brilliant use of colour. The café is lit by a single globe of light but in comparison to the rest of the scene, the light is blinding. As viewers were drawn into the café like moths to a flame but find respite in the cooler colours of the night sky.
Van Gogh subtly uses a one-point perspective. The composition is built on converging lines created by the tables and the angle of the buildings directing us not into the café but past the café down the street. We as viewers are merely passing by and while the café looks inviting, there is this wall of empty tables in the foreground that seems to rip off our advances. Van Gogh was known to work from life, but who knows if he painted the scene at night, it would be rather difficult however there exists this preparatory sketch. You can almost imagine the isolation of the artist as he stands at the distance observing the café patrons enjoying themselves. This is Van Gogh’s first attempt in rendering the effects of the night sky. A subject that you would explore more fully in his later work starry night. A café still stands today at this location and it’s been remodelled to look like Van Gogh’s painting. Considering art imitating life imitating art.
It is his most famous painting and is a part of a trilogy of paintings which includes not only this famous painting but also starry night over the Rone, which I saw the summer at the Muse d’Orsay and the very famous starry night. This is painted in a very optimistic point in Van Gogh’s life upon his arrival in Arles where he hoped to join an artist’s colony. In a letter to his sister, Will Van Gogh described the painting saying that 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 on a pinkish violet tone. The gable top fronts of the houses in the street are stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars that are dark violet or blue 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 the surroundings, the light square acquires a pale sulphur greenish citron yellow colour. Like many of his other works, the café terrace at night may have been loosely inspired by the works of others. Further artists believe that the scene is inspired by a line indeed to miss bolts novel Bellamy which reads of drinkers in the harsh bright lights of their illuminated facades. Yet this painting makes no mention of the starry night which Van Gogh added as his touch to the painting.
Even if Van Gogh’s work was inspired by his work, his painting was entirely his own style. The lines of the composition all point directly to the horse and carriage in the centre of the work and create an illusion of the vortex carrying everything to the centre of the painting. This effect is enhanced by the use of warm colours in the centre of the image.
Yet the overall scene exudes tranquillity and serenity rather than a sense of panic. The horizon of the picture is low and the sky occupies most of the pictorial space which allowed Van Gogh to emphasize the sky and the stars that he loved so much. Currently, the painting is located at the Cruller Muller museum in the Netherlands.
People can still visit the site which Van Gogh painted and eat at the café which has been renamed café Van Gogh in the artist’s honour. This image stands out from the other Van Gogh’s paintings because he painted it in a flurry and used many sketch-like strokes as if he were making a drawing other than a painting.