Ask passersby to name a Vincent van Gogh painting off the top of their heads, and most will come up with works like The Starry Night, The Potato Eaters, one of his self-portraits (probably with his ear bandaged), or maybe the one with the smoking skeleton David Sedaris used for a book cover. How many will mention 1888's The Night Café, an interior, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from Arles (the town in the south of France where he had come in search of Japan-like surroundings), "of the café where I have a room, by gas light, in the evening," the kind of place that never closes, accommodating the kind of "night prowlers" who "have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in"?
Promising subject matter for a painter, one might think. When Vincent wrote back to Theo after completing The Night Café, he described the painting "one of the ugliest I've done," but that doesn't necessarily mean he saw it as a failure, or indeed that we shouldn't see it as a masterpiece. "At first glance, you can see what he meant," says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in the explainer above. "This is a jarring image, even for van Gogh, especially when you compare it to his other famous scene of a café in Arles, Café Terrace at Night," which "captures that romantic sense of European cafés on summer evenings where friends gather to talk and laugh." And yet The Night Café is "a painting of anxiety," offering the nightmare to Café Terrace at Night's "dream of French night life."
Just as van Gogh used color "to capture his emotional response to natural beauty" in other paintings, here he used color "to convey the uneasiness of a low-class barroom after midnight." Puschak digs into the artist's letters and finds clearly stated intent behind all this: "I've tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green," wrote van Gogh. "Everywhere it's a battle and an antithesis of the most different greens and reds." Puschak goes on to break down all the elements van Gogh used to deliberately make The Night Café unsettling: making the wall of the space "a thick, oppressive ribbon the color of blood," a color that clashes with the green of the ceiling and creates "a tension that trembles in the eye," and using on the rest of the interior "a sulfur yellow that gets into everything."
The mood is set by much more than color: the lack of shadows apart from that cast by the pool table, the hunched posture of the patrons and the scattered positions of the chairs and glasses, the "warped quality" of the perspective itself. "There's no escape," Puschak says, "not for the people inside the painting, not for the people outside it" — and not for van Gogh himself, who committed his famous act of ear-slicing mere months after finishing The Night Café. But through this inescapable painting we can see as well as or better than in any other how van Gogh's artistic mastery really worked, and how mastery in service of something other than beauty remains mastery all the same.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.