Why is Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night an important painting?
- Van Gogh’s favorite hot spot
- Yellow light at night
- Forecast calls for more starry nights
Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night en plein air in 1888. En plein air means the artist was outside when he painted it. Van Gogh was living in Arles and loving it. He told his brother about his renewed gusto for painting during this period. Van Gogh drew particular inspiration from the Arles landscape. In fact, his original plan had been to settle in Marseille.
But Van Gogh was so taken with Arles, while traveling through, that he stayed. It served as much-needed respite from the burnout Van Gogh developed in Paris. He left the city of lights deflated after heavy drinking and smoking. But Arles gave him a fresh take. Van Gogh channeled this spirited lift into lots of new work.
In Arles, he created more than 300 pieces. This was the most prolific year of his life. Sadly, he declined at the end of the year. That was when Van Gogh cut off his ear and landed at the Arles hospital in December 1888. He painted the delightful Cafe Terrace at Night only a few months before, in September.
It was a work Van Gogh wanted for his planned project Decoration for the Yellow House. This series of paintings represent a hopeful phase in Van Gogh’s career. He wanted to display his work in a gallery setting and these pieces held that promise to him.
Bedroom in Arles was another of his paintings from this project. Both of these works include a significant yellow swath. The chairs, picture frames, and bed glow in brilliant yellow. At the cafe, a glorious yellow light warms the cool night outside the eatery. This gives the outdoor scene a sense of convivial warmth. It contrasts with the cool night sky above.
Van Gogh grounds the social scene among people. The glimmering stars above seem dream-like. But the cafe scene feels true to life. People cluster close at the back of the cafe. So intimate, they aren’t identifiable as individuals. This highlights the theme of human connection that imbues Cafe Terrace at Night.
A Spirited Glow of Yellow Light
A double glow echoes through this night. The cafe emanates with a thrill of social spirit. While above stars shine bigger and brighter than light bulbs. Van Gogh swirls them into the bright blue sky like chips into an ice cream cone. This was his first starry sky. In fact, he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone next after Cafe Terrace at Night.
Then he created his most famous night sky painting, The Starry Night less than a year later. When I look at this masterpiece, it seems like Van Gogh magnified the same sky from Cafe Terrace at Night. He left behind the secure and social setting of solid ground to fly into dreamy night skies.
But that brilliant yellow glow in the cafe scene has an overarching quality – like the sun in a sky. That’s what I love best about his cafe scene. The warmth of the bustling cafe feels as natural and fundamental as pure earth and sky. Van Gogh often stuns viewers with his yellows and Cafe Terrace at Night shows why. The rich merriment here tells us how Van Gogh felt about the cafe without him saying a word. But he did also talk about this special place and said thus,
I go outside at night to paint the stars and I always dream a painting like that with a group of living figures of the pals.691 (695, 543): To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Saturday, 29 September 1888. – Vincent van Gogh Letters vangoghletters.org.
This cafe meant a lot to him. Van Gogh returned to it night after night. In a similar way, he uses yellow with a generous hand in painting after painting. Speculation snowballs among art historians about why Van Gogh so loved yellow. But my favorite answer to this comes from his fellow painter and buddy, Paul Gauguin. He said,
‘Oh yes, he loved yellow, this good Vincent, this painter from Holland — those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul, that abhorred the fog, that needed the warmth.’Marmor MF, Ravin JG. The artist’s eyes. New York, NY: Abrams; 2009.
Van Gogh loved the cafe because it brought him into a world where people connected. Even if just for the night, there was love and warmth between the cafe patrons. We can feel this thanks to the inviting comfort of Van Gogh’s signature yellow. His love of sunshine yellow brings the night to life even more than the sky’s stars.
It’s also what makes Van Gogh paintings so easy to recognize. His color palette remains as distinctive as his visionary technique. That’s why Cafe Terrace at Night seems so especially poignant. It’s got that blossoming yellow, a starry night sky, and thanks to Van Gogh’s letters and peers, we even know a bit about why.
Cafe Terrace at Night – FAQs
Does Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night painting go by other titles?
There are multiple versions of the painting title for Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night. The first time thhe painter exhibited this he used the title Coffeehouse, in the evening (Café, le soir). Many still list this masterpiece as The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night as well.
That longer title has become quite popular because this was a particular cafe. People want to learn about this place that van Gogh loved. Also, the cafe setting became a key element in the story of Van Gogh’s mental decline.
What is the cafe featured in Van Gogh’s painting Cafe Terrace at Night?
I once visited this cafe, now called Le Café La Nuit, in Arles with the wide eyes of an eager art lover. The outside was painted a luminous yellow with the awnings a deeper, more Van Gogh version of the color.
The cafe features in the Van Gogh’s story of dramatic decline. After he sliced his ear at home he wrapped the organ in paper and brought it to a young woman friend. Her name was Gabrielle, sometimes Gaby. Van Gogh knew her because she worked at his favorite cafe. It was the same cafe he painted in Cafe Terrace at Night.
He handed her his ear, wrapped in bloody paper, and said, “Keep this object carefully.” 18 year old Gaby fainted right away.
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Marmor MF, Ravin JG. The artist’s eyes. New York, NY: Abrams; 2009.
691 (695, 543): To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Saturday, 29 September 1888. – Vincent van Gogh Letters vangoghletters.org.
Murphy, Bernadette. Van Gogh’s Ear. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition (July 12, 2016).
Feilchenfeldt, Walter (2013). Vincent Van Gogh: The Years in France: Complete Paintings 1886–1890. Philip Wilson.
Dorn, Roland; Leeman, Fred (1990). “(exh. cat.)”. In Költzsch, Georg-Wilhelm (ed.). Vincent van Gogh and the Modern Movement, 1890–1914.
“Letter to Eugene Boch mentioning the Cafe Terrace”. Archived from the original on July 29, 2012.
Edwards, Cliff (1989). Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest. Loyola University Press. Edwards, Cliff (1989). Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest. Loyola University Press.
See Cafe Terrace at Night at Kroller Muller museum
Arnold, Wilfred Niels (1992). Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity. Birkhäuser.
McQuillan, Melissa (1989). Van Gogh. Thames and Hudson.
Hulsker, Jan (1990). Vincent and Theo Van Gogh: A Dual Biography. Fuller Publications.
Perry, Isabella H. (1947). “Vincent van Gogh’s illness: a case record”. Bulletin of the History of Medicine.