Cafe Terrace at Night: Van Gogh's Solitude and Love of Night
Updated: 4 days ago
In my opinion, the brain represents the juxtaposition of radiance and gloom at different stages of our lives. However, even with these junctures, it is upon us what we choose for us. Some of us make our own world with all the components balanced like in heaven whereas some try to make their own hell. You might think, who is that person who desires to be in pain? So focus on my words- every single being makes their personal choices in the form of thoughts which decide whether they live like heaven or hell. And after a long hassle and close observation, I have hundreds of examples to prove this fact. For instance, in art history, if we turn the pages, we will find the most famous and beloved artist of all time, Vincent. But you know that even with his terrible life experiences and mental problems, he always chose to display the best part in his paintings; what he saw in his world. And so there is a certain kind of emotional attraction towards his canvases. It feels that every time he dipped the brushes into colours, he regulated his personal imagination and his heart over the canvas. Now, if you are already wondering and wishing to see one of his paintings, where he showed his small beautiful world, allow me to take you to an escape road for a few minutes to Vincent's world. Get ready to see one of the most adorable compositions of our beloved Vincent, Cafe Terrace at Night. The vivid colours of the artwork will attract your attention and allow you to appreciate and see the positive side, while the empty spaces upon a close look will reveal the dilemma of the painter. And of course, you will see the heaven Vincent made for himself in his thoughts. So without wasting any further seconds, let us move forward to analyse the artwork.
1. Artist Statement.
"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.”
The painting is one of the first views Vincent painted after he went to Arles. He wrote about his composition,
"a view of the Cafe in the Place du Forum that we used to Go to, painted at Night."
2. Subject Matter.
The subject matter of Café Terrace at Night is a yellow cafe with a bright sky strewn with stars, a few people sitting or strolling on the terrace in front of the cafe, and a cobbled street where the houses have yellow lights emitting from their windows. Now, do not get baffled by a number of elements mentioned, as I will explain every single of them in detail in a later section.
Vincent van Gogh painted Café Terrace at Night. In his words, he said,
"And my target for my life is to make as many and as many good paintings and drawings as I can and then when my life is over, I hope to depart looking back lovingly and wistfully and thinking: Oh, the pictures I might have made! Yet this surely does not prevent me from making what I possible."
And surely, Vincent stood true to his words, making eleven hundred drawings and 900 paintings in the span of just ten years.
The painting dates back to September 1888.
In February 1888, Vincent moved to the Arles, a town which made him remember the beautiful landscapes of Japan. In the same year September; he tried portraying a view of a starry sky with a street scene illustrating the illuminance of windows and a cafe where he painted at night, which gave form to this canvas.
The painting locates in the Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo.
7. Technique and Medium.
Cafe Terrace at Night painting is an oil on canvas painting from the Post-impressionism period.
Vincent Willem van Gogh
Oil on canvas
81 x 65.5 cm
Priceless, Not on Sale
Where is it housed?
Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo
Now that you know a brief information about the painting, let us learn the entire artwork analysis.
In-depth Description of Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent van Gogh.
About the Artist: Who was Vincent van Gogh?
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who created 2100 artworks in his lifetime and became popular in Western art. The majority of his paintings consist of landscapes, still life, portraits and self-portraits that had bold and dramatic colour influence, a basis of modern art. Born in a middle-class family in 1853, he was thoughtful and quiet during his childhood. However, things changed after he transferred to London. This time his poor health and mental condition began to haunt him. He suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions, after which he got admitted to a mental asylum in 1889. A year later, he shot himself and died due to the injuries after two days at the age of just 37.
History, Background and the Meaning of Cafe Terrace at Night.
Van Gogh completed the Café Terrace at Night in 1888, and considering his brief introduction to a tragic life, one can see through his feelings in this artwork. I think learning about van Gogh's masterpieces shall remain incomplete without an introduction to his thoughts. And what's better than being able to read his letter to his sister just before the painting was completed? The letter says,
"I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, and the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur and lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past, they used to draw and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, and a blue lilac for a pink lilac since you can’t make out the nature of the tone. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact, a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges."
"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."
Now that you have read his written letter, it is appropriate that we head to the entire timeframe of the Cafe Terrace at Night. But before that, it is crucial to note that the time during which van Gogh drew the painting was the period of Post-Impressionism. Notably, you must know that Paul Gaugin and Paul Cezzane belonged to the same era. Don't worry about the complicated spelling of Post-Impressionsim, as I would help you to understand it even with the reference of our beloved Vincent.
What Was Post-Impressionism?
Post-Impressionism was an art movement of French that developed roughly from 1886 to 1905. What do you need to know about its emergence? That it was a reaction to the impressionist's concern for the naturalistic depiction of colours. In simple words, it rejected the limitations of impressionism, extending itself to vivid colours, using impasto (thick application of paint), inclined towards geometric shapes and use of modified colours. But this is not everything you got from it since the post-impressionists were deeply dissatisfied with the extra emphasis on colours and loss of structure in the impressionist paintings. Therefore, they used their methods to create better structures for their artworks. Vincent van Gogh often used vibrant colours and striking brushstrokes in his artworks.
When Did van Gogh Painted Café Terrace At Night?
Moving forward we will look at the timing of this painting to understand its provenance. It was the period when Vincent moved to Arles, a small city in France, in February 1888. He completed this masterpiece by the end of September of the same year, taking inspiration from a cafe renamed; Cafe Van Gogh. In Paris before Arles, Vincent dreamed of moving to the countryside, and now since it reminded him of Japanese landscapes, he moved there. In September, when he rented a place, The Yellow House, it was a space, and the only way Vincent found to decorate was through his artworks. So, he received a small amount of money from his brother Theo to furnish it, and then he started painting on canvas for the sole purpose of decorating the Yellow House with his works. Besides Cafe Terrace at Night, he also painted Sunflowers for this aim.
It is vital to note that as he rented the Yellow House, he invited Paul Gaugin to be his roommate, but they eventually separated due to disputes after living together for a few months.
Subject Matter Analysis of the Artwork.
Being aware of the background, we are prepared to move on to the most awaited part, the subject matter analysis of the Van Gogh cafe.
As you see the painting, the first noticeable subject is the colourful outdoor view that calms the spectator, who enjoys self-company while looking at different people in the surroundings. From the perspective of the painting, it looks like Vincent was sitting at a distance to see all of these.
The yellow hues of the cafe contrast with the blue-black shades of the streets and the violent blue of the door in the foreground. Here, in the cafe, there are over ten tables and chairs arranged with several people sitting around without clear faces. It shows Vincent's emotion of loneliness he felt during his stay. One can also see how few chairs are empty, emphasising the emotional distance of Vincent from people during that time.
There is an effect of heavy artificial yellow lanterns with a soothing soft natural glow of stars, representing the juxtaposition of the opposite. In addition to the yellow swirls of the stars, the colour repeats itself with the cafe tables.
On either side, there are European buildings neglected by the green stems sprouting from their branches. At the centre, a figure is standing, and another is walking into the building. Surrounding the buildings, there is a cobble-stoned street on which figures are walking in different directions. All of the windows of these structures emit yellow lights.
As you have studied the subject matter and other elements thoroughly, let us move on to the next section.
Learning from the Cafe Terrace at Night Analysis.
In the canvas, there are different forms of lines. For instance, for the boundaries of pillars, chairs, and windows, Vincent used strong darker lines to clearly distinguish the identity of each object. However, to represent the crowd sitting around the chair, the artist used indistinct contour lines in the form of fusing figures with their surrounding space. Upon closer examination, you will notice vertical lines that demonstrate Vincent's perception of instability in the surroundings. These vertical lines are in the form of pillars, straight buildings, and window panels, which energises the composition.
2. Light and Value.
The effect of light shows the darker night to be merrier through the illuminance of windows, stars, and lanterns. The painting has a bright radiance that reflects light onto each figure and object. Further, the light does have a comforting and natural view. There is a pronounced contrast and brightness in the painting.
3. Colour Analysis.
In the painting, there is an expression of feelings and emotions, as if two lovers mix them with their distinct personalities in a marriage. Against a darker background, there are bright tones of colours, which makes the entire painting personal and expressive. If you look at a single glance, you will see that the colours are not realistic but they appear magical on the canvas because the artist had a command of weaving different colours together without making it look overdone. It seems that he painted it from his emotion and how he saw the world. Few objects like stars are exaggerated with their appearances whereas distant people are recessed.
It essentially focuses on night effects. Even though the painting appears to be calming, it contains a hidden message that links loneliness and social distance. When you check the emptiness of the foreground space and generalised facial expressions of people, it represents the tension and the observer's perceived social distance.
Through the use of blue and yellow, Van Gogh expresses conflict and his detachment from other people. Furthermore, the artist portrays a positive and joyful mood through the well-lit yellow area of his artwork.
He explained his colour usage on the Cafe Terrace at Night through these words,
"It's quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac since you can't make out the nature of the tone clearly."
Now you must understand that there is a use of colour gradation especially in the composition, which blends all the shades in a better form. Observe how the yellow light slowly turns green on the wall. At the top of the building, the green gradually turns blue. A weak blue leads to a rich sky blue. Hence, this way, Vincent gives a motion to our eyes to watch the painting through his colour gradation.
The brushwork of Vincent van Gogh is linear and blocky. It creates interesting patterns and characters on its own.
It is easy to notice how his brushwork follows the contours of his subjects. In the café ceiling, the artist used a diagonal brushwork pattern, the sky has a tile pattern, the walls have vertical lines, and the ground has horizontal dabs. The rest of his brushwork remains roughly the same regardless of the subject (he used linear brushwork for buildings and circular brushwork for skies).