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Cafe Terrace At Night: Van Gogh's Solitude And Love Of Night

Updated: Jan 26

A collage of cafe terrace at night and van Gogh's self-portrait autumn
Cafe Terrace at Night & Self Portrait Autumn, 1886 | Source: Van Gogh Museum

In my opinion, the brain represents the juxtaposition of radiance and gloom at different stages of our lives. Complementing the fact, I need to tell you that sometimes we have things before us in a well-manner, but we see the heavy dominance of imperfection. This imperfection takes a vast shape of guilt, loneliness and more negative feelings within us. The painting we are analysing today has tints of this correlativity of two contrasting moods. The vivid colours of the artwork will attract your attention and allow you to appreciate the good things; while also allowing you to see the empty spaces and dilemma of the painter. So without wasting any further seconds, let us revert our minds to the past so that we understand the entire artwork- Cafe Terrace At Night by Vincent van Gogh.

Before we move on to the analysis, let us understand the background of the renowned painter Vincent William van Gogh, who drew this masterpiece.

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.

Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait, 1887
Self Portrait, 1887 | Source: Van Gogh Museum

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. Knowing that I think learning about van Gogh's masterpiece 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."

Van Gogh cafe letter to her sister
Van Gogh's letter to her sister | Source: Van Gogh Museum

Socio-Contextual Analysis Of The Café Terrace.

Now that you have read his written letter, it is appropriate that we head to the socio-contextual analysis of the cafe terrace at night. It is crucial to note that the time during which van Gogh drew it was the period of Post-Impressionism. Notably, you must know that Paul Gaugin and Paul Cezzane belonged to the same era. Hearing of the term post-impressionism, don't worry about the complicated spelling 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.

Van Gogh's Painting The Yellow House
The Yellow House by Van Gogh | Source: Van Gogh Museum

When Did van Gogh Painted Café Terrace At Night?

Continuing, let's look at the timing of his painting. It was the period when he 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, he dreamed of moving to the countryside, and now since it reminded him of Japan, he moved there. It is vital to note that he rented the Yellow House with Paul Gaugin, who eventually separated due to disputes after living together for a few months.

Sketch of van Gogh cafe terrace at night
Cafe Terrace At Night Sketch | Source: Van Gogh Museum

Formal Analysis Of van Gogh's Cafe Terrace At Night.


Vincent Willem van Gogh

Date Painted

September 1888


Oil on canvas


F467, JH1580


Post-Impressionism and Cloisonne


81 cm x 65 cm


Priceless, Not on sale

Where is it housed?

​Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands

Being aware of the background, we are prepared to move on to the most awaited part, the formal analysis of the van Gogh cafe.

The Original Painting Cafe Terrace At Night By Van Gogh
The Original Painting Cafe Terrace At Night | Source: Van Gogh Museum

As you see the painting, the first noticeable subject is the colourful outdoor view that calms the spectator who enjoys the self-company while looking at different people in the surroundings. It recalls one of van Gogh quotes when he wrote,

"the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day."

The yellow hues of the cafe contrast with the blue-black of the streets and the violent blue of the door in the foreground. 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. The symbolising light also expresses van Gogh's longing to reach heaven.

European buildings are neglected by the green stems sprouting from their branches. There are over ten tables and chairs arranged with several people sitting around without clear faces. At the centre, a figure is standing, and another is walking into the building. Outside, there is a cobble-stoned street on which figures are walking in different directions. Opposite the cafe, there lies a building with a radiant light window.

Colour Analysis Of Cafe Terrace At Night.

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.

A closer look at cafe terrace by van Gogh
A closer look at cafe terrace by van Gogh | Source: Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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. In addition, the right side represents the artist's painful past, broken friendship with Gaugin, and depressing past.

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."

Popular Culture And Final Words.

In popular culture, the cafe and painting were featured in a 1956 film, Lust for Life and later in Vincent and the Doctor 2010. It furthermore also featured in the film Ronin of 1998. The painting was in the popular series of BBC- 100 Great Paintings.

Though the life of Vincent ended tragically, his demise broke the heart of many art lovers, and the vibrant colours and messages behind his artworks will always hold a special place.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the meaning of the painting Café Terrace at Night?

The painting represents social isolation and loneliness despite its vivid colours. It is the juxtaposition of the two moods of Vincent- the left side represents his joy, whereas the right side represents his dark past and psychological disorders.

How much is the painting Café Terrace at Night Worth?

The artwork Cafe Terrace at Night is priceless. Vincent painted the artwork a year before he was admitted to a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

What kind of painting is Café Terrace at Night?

It displays post-impressionist art and cloisonne. Cloisonne is a post-impressionism art kind with a dark background and flat figures.

What elements of art are used in Café Terrace at Night?

Post-impressionism style with a dark background with more emphasis on lines, shapes and geometry are the elements of art used in the artwork. In some areas, van Gogh uses thickened strokes of the brush.

Where is the original Van Gogh Café Terrace at Night?

Cafe Terrace at Night is kept at Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.

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