“The Night Café” by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In direct contrast to the jovial, carefree depictions of French leisure popularized by Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Café” is an uneasy depiction of the stark realities lurking beneath this idealized lifestyle. While the aforementioned artists portrayed the dizzying highs of the age, here van Gogh illustrates the era’s literal and metaphorical hangover. The Dutch Post-Impressionist stayed awake for three days completing this scene of one of his favorite late-night haunts in Arles, the Café de l’Alcazar (MoMA Audio). His use of multiple red shades from blood to baby pink, as well as his nauseating hues of green create a overwhelming sense of weariness and foreboding.
A far cry from the bustling Parisian cafés that were known to be meeting places for intellectuals and creatives, here we see a smattering of drunks and prostitutes in this eerily empty establishment. As mentioned in a previous post about van Gogh, the artist masterfully uses color to heighten the emotion of the scene. The discordant tones on display here are meant to evoke what he called the “terrible passions of humanity” (“The Night Café”). He most likely meant that he was against the seemingly ubiquitous culture of excess in France at the time. The absinthe seems to literally hang in the air in this scene as the overhead gas lamps radiate this sickly yellow-green hue. Meanwhile, the shape of these gas lamps seems to mockingly echo the halos of light found in van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” We could also take the lamps to represent the artist’s weary eyes witnessing this enduring scene of despair.
“The Night Café ” Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, Connecticut. 23 May 2017. <http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/12507>.
“Vincent van Gogh: “The Night Café.” Audio Recording via Acoustiguide for MoMA. 23 May 2017. <http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/51/1001>.