Van Gogh’s Ugliest Masterpiece: A Break Down of His Late, Great Painting, The Night Café (1888)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Van Gogh’s 1888 Paint­ing, “The Night Cafe,” Ani­mat­ed with Ocu­lus Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Soft­ware

13 Van Gogh’s Paint­ings Painstak­ing­ly Brought to Life with 3D Ani­ma­tion & Visu­al Map­ping

Near­ly 1,000 Paint­ings & Draw­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online: View/Download the Col­lec­tion

A Com­plete Archive of Vin­cent van Gogh’s Let­ters: Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed and Ful­ly Anno­tat­ed

Down­load Vin­cent van Gogh’s Col­lec­tion of 500 Japan­ese Prints, Which Inspired Him to Cre­ate “the Art of the Future”

Edward Hopper’s Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Intro­duc­tion

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.