Within Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh captures a dreamy nighttime scene of a café in his beloved adopted town of Arles. It is the first of his starry night trilogy, with Starry Night Over the Rhône and The Starry Night following in later years. In this article, Singulart will explore the composition of Café Terrace at Night, van Gogh’s relationship with Arles, and whether Café Terrace at Night contains hidden references to The Last Supper.
Van Gogh and Arles
In 1888, tired of the frenetic life in Paris and yearning for some French countryside sun, van Gogh hopped on a train heading to Provence. Although van Gogh had envisioned stopping in Arles on his way to Marseilles, he was enchanted by the French country town and never continued on his journey to Marseilles, instead staying in Arles for fourteen months. Van Gogh threw himself enthusiastically into his painting, which included portraits and still life pieces, writing to his brother Theo, “I am painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse.”
After a few months in Arles, van Gogh rented The Yellow House, which would be depicted in his artwork of the same name. He was further energized by the arrival of his friend Paul Guaguin, who would live alongside him in The Yellow House for two months. However, as the weather turned dreary, their relationship deteriorated, perhaps due to the two temperamental artists being cooped up inside. One of their fights culminated in van Gogh mutilating part of his own ear.
At this point, van Gogh was committed to Hôpital-Dieu for the first time, and he would go between the hospital and The Yellow House over the next few months. Unfortunately, van Gogh’s erratic behavior had frightened the town’s residents to the point where they petitioned for van Gogh to be readmitted to a psychiatric hospital. After much discussion with Theo, van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, leaving Arles on May 8, 1889.
Composition of Café Terrace at Night
Van Gogh had a great affinity with painting the night sky – Café Terrace at Night being part of his ‘night sky’ trilogy, alongside The Starry Night and Starry Night Over the Rhône. Van Gogh has managed to depict a nighttime scene without using the color black, writing to his sister Wilhemina:
“Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square acquires a pale sulphur and greenish citron-yellow color. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot.”
Instead of relying on black, van Gogh’s artwork is illuminated with warm yellows contrasting with deep blues, imbibing the painting with a warmth and luminosity. Van Gogh wrote to Wilhemina after the completion of Café Terrace at Night, describing the scene:
“On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree…”
He continues, “It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”
Although van Gogh was considered part of the impressionist movement, Café Terrace at Night is not strictly an impressionist piece. Admittedly, van Gogh did set up his easel facing the café and took direct inspiration from what he saw in front of him, but he also included some spiritual and fantastical elements that embodied his personal feelings for his beloved Arles café.
The brushstrokes of the piece lend themselves to the impressionist movement: vivid, textured and breathing life into the canvas. Viewers can also see the origins of the van Gogh’s night skies – made so famous by The Starry Night – in Café Terrace at Night. Van Gogh’s appreciation of the night sky is apparent in the fact that the constellations in the piece are a direct replica of what he would have seen on September 16 or 17, 1888.
Comparisons to The Last Supper
In around 2015, theories arose that van Gogh had used Café Terrace at Night to pay homage to The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Researcher Jason Baxter claimed that around the time he created Café Terrace at Night, van Gogh had written a letter to his brother Theo stating he had a “tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion.”
Baxter argues that the figures in the artwork – twelve seated individuals surrounding a central long haired figure, while one dark figure departs the scene – echo the figures present at Jesus’s Last Supper. He also states that there are multiple crosses hidden in the piece, most evident at the supporting bar of the window behind the long-haired figure.