Looking at Vincent van Gogh's The Night Café

Vincent van Gogh’s  The Night Café , in the Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café, in the Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

In 1888, just two years before he died of an allegedly self-inflicted gunshot wound, Vincent van Gogh was living in rented quarters in the south of France. His time in Arles resulted in some of the most prolific output of his decidedly productive career. This was not just a period of great quantity, but also of great quality. Among the paintings he finished in Arles was an interior scene of the café where he was staying; a painting that many consider to be one of his masterworks. Le Café de nuit or The Night Café, depicts the vividly colored interior of the Café de la Gare, van Gogh’s home  as he continued work on The Yellow House, where he hoped to found an artists’ colony with the likes of Paul Gauguin, who famously departed after a short sojourn as Vincent’s housemate. The Night Café is an unusual painting even within van Gogh’s oeuvre. It is defined by a sense of foreboding and unease. But it is also nonetheless one of his most affecting paintings, and one of my favorites.

In the painting, the viewer is placed in a position of confrontation with the barkeep in an all night café lit by the radiating glow of a series of hanging lamps. This figure, that of the owner, Joseph-Michel Ginoux, stands like an apparition behind the billiard table in the center of the room. He is surrounded not only by drunken derelicts peppered throughout the surrounding space, but also by the thickly painted walls of the encroaching room. This space and the characters within it induce a kind of claustrophobic response, and a sense of the psychic angst. This is entirely by design. Van Gogh said as much of the painting in a letter to his brother Theo.

I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.  

The color relationships that van Gogh describes, between the greens and reds, et cetera, create the illusion of vibration and dissonance within the space. It is as if, we, the viewers have entered the bar already drunk and unwilling to accept the limitations of a last call. The quaint local tavern becomes a destination of last resort.

The self consciously gritty content of van Gogh’s Café may seem somewhat passé to a modern audience. But consider its place in the history of art and the way this image presages the qualities found in later work by Munch or Kirchner or Hopper. The alienation that would become the hallmark of modernity is encapsulated in this painting of a sleepy night haunt in nineteenth century France. The quality that made this work visionary in its own time also establishes its accessibility and resonance for a contemporary audience. Thus, the subjective outlook of the viewers of 2019 informs the static art of the 1880’s, renewing and reinvigorating it with meanings even the artist could not have envisioned.

Van Gogh’s treatment of the scene, with its scintillating colors, thick daubs of paint, and the innate eeriness of a barely-peopled bar make it all too real in a sense. It is what I, personally, love about this picture. Van Gogh crafts an experience as much as he does a place. Ignore, momentarily, the aforementioned color theory meant to display the passions of humanity, and let the instant the painting shows us sink in. The Night Café displays the knife’s edge of drinking. The painter was a drinker and was intimately aware of the way in which festive friendliness of a bar can slip into something uneasy and even funereal.

That pool table lunges forward, as if the room is about to start spinning. The lights are shining a bit too brightly in the lead up to a hangover headache. The barkeep is a blur, but all too able to pour us out another glass. All of it is very solid, but also on the verge of dislocating. Although van Gogh loved beauty and wanted to paint like the Impressionists he so admired, he couldn’t help but show us the darker side of things – the side he knew all too well. This painting illustrates the goings on within the walls of a building that artists just a few years prior would have described with gauzy delicacy. What van Gogh has given us is something altogether unique and altogether his own, and his gift to art history. He has transformed the angst of the emerging industrialized working class into a space. He converted the dramas of humanity into the architectonics of a pub.

So why should such a painting be lauded as one of the most important by an artist such as van Gogh? Are color theory and narrative intrigues enough to catapult a work into the firmament of a particular zeitgeist? These attributes alone are perhaps not enough, but, combined with the artist’s tumultuous personal story and the role his production played in reshaping the broader imaginative possibilities for all artists, they can illustrate why such a work could be seen as a pendant for something larger. The Night Café represents many of van Gogh’s best qualities including his striving for technical complexity and excellence. It also represents some of the personal struggles that drove his art-making and defined his stylistic aims. It is both quintessential and unexpected. It is a great painting of a bad night out.

A detail from  The Night Café , showing abandoned tables and a drinker with his face in his arms.

A detail from The Night Café, showing abandoned tables and a drinker with his face in his arms.