The Night Café, 1888
The Night Café is one of Van Gogh’s most simultaneously brilliant and disturbing works. The picture represents a nighttime scene of the Café de la Gare, a local all-night establishment the artist frequented while living in Arles. It was painted onsite, by the same artificial lighting that ensured the disruption of its patrons’ circadian sleep cycles. According to the clock, it is around 12:15am. Vincent stayed awake for three consecutive nights (sleeping by day), to capture what he refers to as the setting’s infernal ambience, expressed through distorted perspective, dizzying halos of light, and a strident combination of earthy reds and acidic greens, offset with yellow.
In the center of the composition sits a billiard table, typically a symbol of sociability. Here it looks more like an imposing coffin, surrounded by empty space and its own deep shadow. Standing next to the table in a white coat is the café’s proprietor, Monsieur Ginoux. He stares out at the viewer, the only one who seems to be aware of the artist’s presence.
Around the picture’s perimeter are several “night prowlers,” as the artist called them, people slumped over the café’s tables, who either could not afford lodging or were too drunk to get there. In a letter to Théo, Vincent described it as a dangerous place “where you could ruin yourself, go mad or commit crimes.” But it was also a place he felt anonymous, if not accepted.