Vincent Van Gogh's famous painting, The Cafe Terrace at Night, is also known as the The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum. It can be found at the at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands.
It is painted in the medium of oil on canvas. The painting was completed by Van Gogh when he lived at the Yellow House in Arles, France. The painting has been dated to 1888, in mid september. The Cafe Terrace at Night is not signed by Van Gogh, but has been described and discussed in several letters by the artist. It is still possible to this day when visiting Arles to stand at the site that Van Gogh composed the painting. Vincent Van Gogh assembled his easel at night and looked towards the lit seating area of one of Arles most popular coffee houses and cafe. On the right side of the painting as you look at it you can see the contrast to the brightness of the cage as you look at the darkness of the Rue du Palais. You can also see a small lit shop on the right hand side which Van Gogh depicted against the darkness of the Rue du Palais. However, he did not include the visible roman remains in the street beside this small shop.
One of Van Gogh's famous letters was written after completing the Cafe Terrace at night. In it, he describes to his sister the joy that the work of completing the painting had given him in the last few days. Van Gogh in particular describes the figures on the terrace that are drinking, and the yellow lantern that hangs above them. Van Gogh also vividly describes the colours seen in the street of purples and pinks and yellows. Colour is a very important component in several of Van Gogh's paintings, particularly those that he composed at night. His letters to his sister describe vividly the scenes colours. The first time that the painting was exhibited, it was actually called the Coffeehouse in the Evening. However, it was thought to not truly depict the scene that Van Gogh was trying to portray. This painting was the first of a series of paintings in which Van Gogh used starry skies as a background, a year before the other famous painting The Starry Night.
This painting is a good example of how the artist would experiment with the principles of art. In the case of this artwork, Van Gogh would ignore the use of vanishing point in some areas of the composition, but use it correctly in others. This was no mistake nor accidental feature - the artist was experimenting with reality and his own mind. He never wished to be entirely constrained by convention and was willing to court criticism when taking on new ideas that were inspired by his creative mind. Post-Impressionism and Expressionism were about taking what we see and feel, and combining them into a single form. The Impressionists of France were amongst the first artists to make use of emotion and feeling within their work, with these later movements then pushing things ever onwards with their own innovations and technical methods. Of course, that development would not end there, as we pushed into the 20th and 21st centuries.
"...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..."
Vincent describing the painting to his sister
The video below gives a detailed account of the artist's life and career, running for nearly an hour in total. Certainly worth a watch, and it helps to place this painting within the context of Van Gogh's oeuvre. There are many more videos from a variety of sources available on Youtube, some of which are aiming to sell reproductions of his work, whilst others are lectures from significant galleries or museums. There was not one specific to this artwork with any great detail, and so we have included this more general commentary of his life as a whole.
Further Detail on the Painting
As one of the major paintings in Van Gogh's career, this piece has been researched and studied in great detail. Letters from around the time that Van Gogh produced it have been trawled through for references to its development and inspiration. Some have even travelled to the region itself and examined the cafe, which remains pretty much as it was back in those days. Others have also produced scientific studies of the artwork directly from the canvas in order to study the particular paint particles and also check to see if any other artworks had been placed on the canvas originally, then worked over. This might sound unlikely, but there are many existing examples of it within art history and these secrets would never have been revealed were it not for modern techniques which can look below the surface of a painting, without damaging what's there.
The stars added to the sky by the artist are done so in a way which is his signature approach. Van Gogh was creating a style of painting which had not been seen before, and so there were unique features throughout his paintings which made them immediately recognisable as his. This approach to forming the stars continued into Starry Night Over the Rhône and Portrait of Eugene Boch. They resemble small flowers, as if the artist was finding nature within even the sky. It was again an expressive approach, where precise reproduction of reality was not the aim nor inspiration. Other artists were more than happy to produce photographic-like copies of what they saw, but Van Gogh wanted to create a picture of this cafe which went beyond reality, using his own imagination as much as possible. The Starry Night also made use of these expressive sky depictions. For these particular paintings he would actually work outside, sat patiently in the same position as we see before us in the finished artwork.
The cafe itself remains in the same spot today, though now known as Le Café de la Nuit. It is a popular stop-off point for international tourists, and the venue itself has taken full advantage of this by matching the decor as originally seen in the painting. Such is the fame of this artist, that even the most fleeting art fan would normally recognise this painting straight away. That allows visits to the cafe to be part of a wider tour of the country, rather than just for art experts alone. The artist went on to read about similar scenes in classic French literature which further expanded his imagination for future paintings. He wrote about these literary discoveries in letters to his sister. He would not be the only artist to have enjoyed painting the streets of France, be it smaller towns such as this, or the grander architecture of the capital, Paris. Who can forget the stunning The Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro, were each item is flickering within the darkness, with only man-made light entering the canvas.
Visiting Le Café de la Nuit in Arles
The original cafe still remains and can be visited for a spot of food and drink. At the time of writing, customer reviews of this venue were not particularly complementary, with some advising not to visit, or perhaps to dine at another cafe close by and just pop over for a photograph. Always best to check ahead if you are planning a visit, with the cafe being located at 11 Place du Forum, 13200, Arles France. The Van Gogh Foundation can be found just a few streets away, as is the Rhone river, and there is also plenty of other sights to enjoy in this town to make a visit worthwhile. Tour guides will tend to be the most knowledgeable and also will be unlikely to take you anywhere that they know is poor, so those in organised groups should be better catered for.
Discover The Cafe Terrace at Night at the Kroller-Muller Museum
The Cafe Terrace at Night is currently on display at the Kroller-Muller Museum in Ottterlo, Netherlands. There is also a preparatory study of the painting by Van Gogh which can be found at the Dallas Museum of Art. The initial study piece helps us to better understand the artist's methods of production, with alterations made to the composition between this piece and the final artwork. Van Gogh worked at a ferocious pace, particularly during his time living in France, and so he would likely have completed several studies and the final piece at around the same time, with very little pause for breath. This work ethic helped him to distract himself from his own internal turmoil and it found it soothing to concentrate solely on nature, cityscapes and his own paintings of them. Whilst his career was relatively short, as explained in the biography, he was able to leave behind a huge oeuvre because of the sheer amount of pieces that he created on a near-daily basis.
Those fortunate enough to see this painting up close, at the Kroller-Muller Museum, will also get the opportunity to enjoy some other famous artworks during their visit - although it is worth checking ahead if you are looking to see a specific piece, as most major galleries and museums have a constant rotation of their work, as well as some loans in and out. The museum claims to hold the second largest collection of original Van Gogh works in the world - including 90 paintings and 180 drawings at the last count. Some of the other highlights from his career include The Potato Eaters, one of his most famous paintings. Those with a broader interest in art history will also be able to see original paintings by the likes of Piet Mondrian, Carl Andre, Juan Gris and Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig. There is also a fine collection of sculptures by British artist, Barbara Hepworth.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.