Vincent van Gogh painted The Night Café just after he finished painting the Café Terrace at Night in 1888 at Arles, France. Both were painted around the same time and location(Arles) but there was a striking contrast in them.
The Café Terrace at Night is a dreamy pictorial representation of an exterior of one of the most romantic cafes in Europe where friends come together to laugh and enjoy. The exuberant french nightlife is portrayed.
While The Night Café shows a jarring image of an interior of a cafe. The ambience of a lower-class bar room after midnight is depicted where people can lose their temperament after heavy drinking and are liable to commit crimes.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in one of the letters, “The Night Café is one of the ugliest paintings I have done.”
Why did Van Gogh use such harsh colors of red and green to paint The Night Café and how the “ugliest” painting became a masterpiece?
Van Gogh’s avid knowledge of colors
Van Gogh’s comprehensive knowledge about colors inarguably made him one of the most powerful impressionists. He was strongly influenced by famous color therapists like Ogden Rood and Michel Eugène Chevreul and applied their color theory to his paintings.
The traditional color star developed by Charles Blanc in 1867 where the complementary colors were directly opposite to each other was used by different contemporary painters of the 19th century.
Van Gogh mastered how to create simultaneous contrast when complementary colors juxtapose and reinforce each other. And so, he used a lot of red-green and blue-orange in his art pieces.
The description of the Night Café
In August 1888, Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo:
Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the café where I have a room, by gaslight, in the evening. It is what they call here a “café de nuit” (they are fairly frequent here), staying open all night. “Night prowlers” can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.
This painting was an exact opposite of Cafe Terrace at Night —
- The artist intentionally used the complementary colors of red-green to show unpleasing ambiance and the lamps as “sinister features” with orange-green halos.
- The scene is described with drunkards and derelicts slouching on the disturbed chairs.
- The isolation and despair of the few human beings are contrasted with objects of pleasure like a billiard table, wine bottles, and glasses.
Van Gogh wrote quite a few letters to Theo for this art piece.
In one of the letters, he describes the painting:
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 next day (September 9), he wrote Theo: “In my picture of the Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur.
Why the Night Café was gloomy and his other art pieces after this one
This is a known fact that Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. While painting the Night Café, he was isolated, and so, he put his thoughts on the canvas.
After this painting, Paul Gauguin, another famous French painter came to see him in Arles and they painted several paintings together. The Painter of Sunflowers is a portrait of Vincent van Gogh by Paul Gauguin in December 1888.
But their relationship began to deteriorate and Van Gogh feared that Gauguin would desert him and so Van Gogh mutilated his ear.
In 1889, he painted Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe that showed the much-balanced use of red and orange colors compared to the Night Café.
His expertise in the use of colors in his paintings made the “ugly” painting one of the most recognized artworks. The painting is a lesson on how strong emotions like loneliness and desperation can be portrayed in art.
As a general rule, Van Gogh only signed the works that he felt were the most well-executed. In the lower right corner of this painting, Van Gogh wrote “Vincent le café de nuit”.