Arts Everyday Living: Van Gogh’s Night Cafe & the Colors of Human Passions

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….For three nights I stayed up to paint, going to bed during the day…..

Vincent van Gogh to brother Theo, September 8, 1888

…I was interrupted precisely by the work on a new painting of the outside of a cafe in the evening…..

Vincent van Gogh to sister Willemien, September 9 – September 14, 1888


During the first half of September, 1888 in Arles, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was creating at a level of intensity and inspiration achieved by few artists.  By September 8, he informed Theo that he had finished The Night Cafe. The next day he began Terrace of a Cafe at Night, actually interrupting a missive to his sister Willemien; on September 14, he returned to his writing, announcing the completion of his newest painting.

In each letter, Vincent vividly described his recent achievements in terms of color.  Because in The Night Cafered and green are at the core. Defined as complementary colors,  they are  located on the opposite ends of the traditional color wheel and contrast with each other when placed side by side.* Van Gogh has used this visual effect to produce a sense of anxiety, even an underlying violence. 


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 the little hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue.

The blood-red and 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, on vigil in a corner of this furnace, turn lemon-yellow or pale luminous green.



Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT



Isn’t the environment of Terrace of a Cafe at Night more relaxing?  Vincent does not emphasize a specific color in the quote below, although blue, violet, and green are mentioned most often. Yet, how about the yellow? Not only in the cafe building itself, but in the stars as well.

I definitely want to paint a starry nightVincent had stressed to his sister on September 9, just prior to starting the painting.  In two future works, he would no longer restrict the sky to the background: Starry Night on the Rhone done only a few weeks later and the now famous Starry Night, created at Saint-Remy in June, 1889.


On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking.  A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the facade, 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.  Now, then there’s a painting of night without black.  With nothing but beautiful blueviolet, and greenand in these surroundings the lighted square is colored pale sulphur, lemon green.


Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh,Terrace of a Cafe at Night (Place du Forum), 1888, oil on canvas, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands


*Note: the color wheel of the 19th century has changed over time.


Resources for this blog are Van Gogh’s letters cited above and Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (catalog of the exhibition), by Sjraar van Heugten, Joachim Pissarro, Chris Stolwijk and others, published by the Museum of Modern Art (English edition) and Van Gogh Museum, New York and Amsterdam, 2008.


The above images are used solely for educational purposes.









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