“The night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day” – a quote that Vincent van Gogh lived by as an artist and proved it in his paintings starting with the Café Terrace at Night. Van Gogh painted this masterpiece in September 1888, using oil on canvas in France. When first exhibited in 1891, the painting was entitled Coffeehouse, in the evening. It now graces the walls of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. The star-studded sky that is as illuminating as the orange lit cafe underneath it shows how much van Gogh loved painting the night sky. It is this love that will lead him to make another of his masterpieces – The Starry Night. But what is so special about this piece that it makes tourists from around the globe visit a small cafe hidden in the streets of France till this day? And why is it worth around $200 million?
Van Gogh painted Café Terrace at Night also known as The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum in a typical Cloissionist style, the subjects in the composition are painted flat and the artwork is outlined using what seems to be black colour. One thing that many people don’t know is that Van Gogh avoided using black in this painting as he wanted to capture all the vibrant colours of the night sky. The painting is also influenced by Japanese woodcuts – a method that revolves around relief carvings and conscious colour application. Van Gogh painted the cafe live and not from his memory. Interestingly the site was refurbished in 1990-91 to replicate van Gogh’s painting and the cafe was renamed as Café Van Gogh. It still exists till date and continues to attract art lovers from around the world. Although the painting is not signed by the artist, which is unusual, there is evidence that it is made by him. He mentioned the painting thrice in letters. After finishing the painting, he wrote a letter to his sister saying:
“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. 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. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.”
This letter helped several admirers know more about Van Gogh’s thought process and why he avoided using black – a choice of colour that is very common when painting the night sky.
Influenced by Religion?
It is suggested that this painting is similar to The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci simply because the main characters seen at the cafe include one central figure with long hair who is surrounded by 12 other individuals. On top of this, across shines in the background of the composition. The artist has also included several cross-like shapes in the entire painting. The shadowy figure on the left may very well represent Judas. Van Gogh was known to be fascinated by religion and wanted to ‘preach the gospel everywhere’ considering his father was a pastor for a Dutch Reformed Church. The artist wrote to his brother two weeks after painting this piece saying “That doesn’t stop me having a terrible need for – dare I say the word – for religion. So I go outside at night to paint the stars and I always dream a painting like that with a group of living figures of the pals.” However, there is no way to say for sure that van Gogh was aiming to imitate The Last Supper in his painting. It could simply be a waiter serving a group of people and one person going inside the cafe for some work.
When van Gogh painted this masterpiece, he was known to be in a very jolly mood. This was before he spent one year in the mental hospital (1889-1890) and he wanted to explore the topic of religion and astronomy through his paintings. He used to study the night sky in detail and preferred live painting over painting from memory or imagination. What is interesting about this painting is that the positions of the stars used in the night sky are accurate according to astronomical data. This allowed historians to track the date he made this masterpiece since he chose not to sign on it or put a date down. The painting was made on September 17 or 18 in 1888.
This calming piece of art reflects the mind of the artist at that time. Van Gogh was happy and wanted to explore how the night sky looks in different lights – using anything but black. He will then go on to paint the sky more in Starry Night Over Rhône and The Starry Night. Even if one hangs a copy of this painting in their living room, it is sure to teleport the viewer into this quiet street in France.
Next Up in Behind The Art: Why is the Mona Lisa so famous and what led it to having the most expensive insurance policy in history, valued at $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $650 million in 2018?