Thursday, May 5, 2011

Vincent Van Gogh - The Night Cafe

Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Cafe,1888
(Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven)

Van Gogh painted this canvas when he was living in Arles by himself in 1888.  Gauguin had sent him a drawing of a brothel scene and Van Gogh wanted to paint something similar from his own life. He had rented rooms above this place when he first moved to Arles.  He was painting from his own life. He recognized that this cafe could really ruin a person, like the man and the woman at the back of the room.  

He said he wanted to paint something that is really ugly, "a devil's furnace of sulfurous yellow." He planned on not using any refined brushwork and layered his brushwork. This was Van Gogh's interpretation in terms of color.  He was back to a night scene but this time it was a hellish night scene.  A sulfurous, bright, intense yellow permeates the whole picture plane, he uses an acidic green on the ceiling and a really bright red on the walls of this uninviting place.  The floor is tipped up, the perspective is off, everything gives the  impression of instability and like being in hell. The bartender with the green hair stands in the middle of the room, with his hands down not welcoming or inviting, just like the other occupants of the room who are wasting away, absorbed in their own drama.

Even the different kinds of lights, Van Gogh seems to be interested in, added to the atmosphere of unsavoriness.  There is a gas light hanging over the table, which was a new invention, that Van Gogh is using to intensely light up the table while he is creating an aura around the oil lamps with his brush strokes.

What separated the Symbolists from the Impressionists was the idea that a work of art should derive from the artist's inner feelings, dreams and/or symbols, not from observed nature.  Also, artistic techniques such as color, line and composition would be used in an expressive way to evoke emotions and moods.  Van Gogh uses all of these tools in this painting to evoke his own inner emotions and thoughts about this cafe and what it could do to a person.  He wrote to Theo that he even stayed up for three nights to paint this picture, in order to create this mood by making himself understand that state of mind of being up.

In The Night Cafe, we not only get a feeling for what Van Gogh felt about a certain place, but also his interpretation of the people that frequented such a space.  Just looking at the sad, depressing painting makes one feel sorry for the kind of melancholy he must have been feeling at the time.

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