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The Sinister Composition of The Night Café by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh called The Night Café “one of the ugliest paintings I have ever done.” The artwork depicts a desolate café scene at quarter past midnight in violently contrasting colors. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described the café as “a café de nuit… 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.” In this article, Singulart analyzes the composition of The Night Café and explores Van Gogh’s unusual color palette. 

Composition of The Night Café

Van Gogh was inspired to paint The Night Café after his friend Emile Bernard sent a series of drawings depicting brothels. This inspired Van Gogh to explore a similarly dark subject matter, one that did not depict the cheery, jovial nature of nighttime cafés, but more the dark, seedy underbelly. He achieved this by painting the café in the establishment where he was renting a room, the last place he stayed before moving into his infamous Yellow House. 

Roughly two thirds of the artwork is taken up by the jaundiced yellow-greens of the floorboards, with a billiard table standing starkly in the center. Patrons of the café sit morosely, slumped over tables, apart from one figure who stares unflinchingly at the viewer. Although they are surrounded by vestiges of good times- wine glasses, bottles and the billiard table- it does not appear to be a happy occasion, but rather one that is quiet and slightly despondent. Although the room is illuminated by lanterns, there is a completely different atmosphere compared to other nighttime pieces by van Gogh, such as Café Terrace at Night. While Café Terrace has a jubilant, warm quality to its depiction of a café at night, The Night Café has a gloomy, almost sinister atmosphere. 

The perspective of the scene is particularly noteworthy to critics. The narrowing perspective draws the viewer’s eye towards the curtain at the back of the room, leading the way into the mysteries that lie beyond the café. The fact that the perspective is slightly tilted also gives the piece an eerie, nightmarish feeling, where perhaps the viewer cannot quite put their finger on why the scene feels so wrong. Author Nathaniel Harris writes, “The scene might easily be banal and dispiriting; instead, it is dispiriting but also terrible.”

The striking color palette

One of the most striking elements of The Night Café is its unusual, rather harsh color palette. In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote: 

“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.”

Although yellow comes through strongly in both Café Terrace and The Night Café, it is used in different ways. While in Café Terrace yellow is used to create a warm brightness and a cozy atmosphere, in The Night Café it is used to create a harshly artificial light. In both pieces, the yellow is used to emphasize darkness and nighttime, but in starkly different methods.

Vincent van Gogh, Café Terrace at Night (1888)

The clash of red and green is another notable element of The Night Café. In a correspondence with Theo, Van Gogh quoted a passage of Delacroix: “When the complementary colors are produced in equal strength, that is to say in the same degree of vividness and brightness, their juxtaposition will intensify them each to such a violent intensity that the human eye can hardly bear the sight of it.” Perhaps that would later influence his decision to use such a heavy clash of red and green in The Night Café, ensuring that it would be a piece of art that would perplex and enthrall viewers many years after his death.

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