The Night Café: Vincent van Gogh (1888)

The Night Café: Vincent van Gogh (1888)

The Night Café, or Le Café de nuit in French, is an 1888 Expressionist painting by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh.

Summary of The Night Café

We are seeing the inside of an all-night café, with several casual customers on either side and the proprietor standing in the middle, beside a green billiard table. He is the only one to be facing the viewer. A doorway across the room is open, suggesting other spaces beyond.

The establishment is the Café de la Gare in Arles, South-Eastern France, in Provence. Van Gogh was a regular at the cafe, where he had a room, during his artistic retreat to the small maritime town. To capture its nighttime atmosphere, van Gogh slept during the day so as to be able to paint at night. He worked on it for three nights in a row.

The proprietor’s wife featured the same year in another van Gogh painting, the Arlésienne.

The painting is based on lively chromatic oppositions. A turquoise ceiling reaches down to orange-red walls. These are enlivened both by the contrast with the greenish hue and by the golden rays of light that the hanging lanterns are casting on them. The tapestry on the lower quarter of the wall is of a yellow-brown pattern and so are the floorboards.

Medium

  • The Night Café is an oil on canvas painting
  • It measures 72.4 x 92.1 cm (28.5 x 36.2 inches)

Genre and Style

  • The Night Café is a genre painting, which is characterized as a painting of scenes from everyday life
  • Accomplished through van Gogh’s evolving Expressionist or Neo-Impressionist technique which he helped pioneer

Time

When van Gogh arrived in Arles on 21 February 1888, it had the look of a peripheral backwater townlet. He was immediately attracted by its simplicity and the chance to see, in this part of the Provence, images of authentic human life.

It is even possible that van Gogh hoped to establish an artistic circle in Arles to which to invite like-minded artists. He produced over 300 artworks, drawings, and paintings, during his one year of residence.

Paul Gauguin visited Vincent van Gogh in Arles but was less impressed by the place. The only painting he accomplished while in Arles was a portrait of van Gogh. The two friends had recurrent quarrels during their cohabitation at the so-called Yellow House.

It is in Arles that van Gogh’s perilous mental health took a turn for the worse. It is here that, in December 1888, van Gogh cut off his left ear with a razor during a hallucinatory fit that he could not afterward recall.

He was hospitalized the following day, Gauguin having already departed and his departure having possibly precipitated the self-harming event. Although ostensibly recuperated by January 1889, van Gogh was by now behaving even more erratically. So much so that in March the local residents, including the proprietors of the Café de la Gare – the subject of this painting The Night Café, petitioned the police for his removal.

After the eviction, van Gogh resided in Arles for another two months before finally entering an asylum of his own will. He lived for another year, then committed suicide by way of a gunshot.

History of The Night Café

Vincent Van Gogh had sold The Night Café to the proprietors of the Café de la Gare to settle his debts. It was subsequently acquired by the Russian art collector Ivan Morozov and exhibited regularly for a brief period in Moscow.

The Bolshevik government confiscated Ivan Morozov’s art collection, along with the collections of many others, as part of their nationalization policy after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Like most other artworks stolen by the Bolsheviks, The Night Café was sold in the 1930s to the Western World as means to generate much-needed foreign currency supplies. It was acquired by businessman and newspaper publisher Stephen Carlton Clark in 1933 who in 1960 bequeathed to his alma mater Yale University. It currently resides in The Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).

In recent years American courts have deliberated that the acquisition of the painting by Yale is legitimate after lawsuits from the descendants of Ivan Morozov claiming that the painting was forced from Ivan Morozov was under duress and therefore Stephen Carlton Clark was never the rightful owner of the painting.

The Artist

Van Gogh came to Arles in search of some peace of mind and with a half notion of starting an artists’ colony. Prior to his painful cohabitation with Paul Gauguin, he had also found it difficult to live in the same place as his brother Theo, whom he otherwise loved. In Arles, van Gogh also hoped to recover his physical health, compromised by alcohol and nicotine.

The year spent in Arles between 1888 and 1889 represents the last period of his independent living. It would be followed by hospitalization and regular care, until his fatal self-shooting on 27 July 1890. At the time of his death, at 37 years of age, he had only begun to be widely recognized as an exceptional artist.

Similar Paintings

  • The Night Café may be directly compared to Gauguin’s Night Café at Arles, where the same scene is used as a background
  • Otherwise, the painting is studied alongside the other scenes of life depicted by van Gogh in Arles. It is related to L’Arlésienne

Importance

  • The painting displays van Gogh’s Expressionistic technique
  • It is considered one of his masterpieces

Location of The Night Café

  • Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG)
  • 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut, United States of America.

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