Café Terrace at Night, 1888
Not exhibited until a year after the artist’s death, Café Terrace at Night represents an outdoor café on the Place du Forum in Arles, and has become one of Van Gogh’s most famous and beloved images.
It was painted in mid-September of 1888. Less than a month beforehand, the artist produced his Night Café, his painting of down-and-out figures slumped over tables at an all-night establishment. That now-famous work is characterized by startling perspective and strident reds and greens, in an atmosphere Van Gogh described as “infernal.” While Night Café and Café Terrace at Night each offer a scene of nocturnal activity, and were both painted on site, the two works could scarcely be more different in palette, tone, or ambience. Café Terrace at Night provides a more calm, picturesque view of its locale and upscale inhabitants. In contrast to the claustrophobic inertia of the Night Café, the receding street with a starry sky above in the later work gives a deep sense of space and possibility of retreat. The interaction among the seated patrons, the standing waiter, and the people walking in the street suggests a relaxed sociability, while the lively cobblestone pavement and unoccupied bistro tables in the foreground offer a comfortable distance for the viewer – and perhaps for the artist.
Café Terrace at Night combines dynamic, rather than discordant, contrasts and rhyming. The painting displays a fascinating interplay between inverted shapes, foreshortening and distance, interior and exterior spaces, and the illumination from both gas lighting and the stars. Humanity and nature are brought together in delicate equipoise by the outward curve of the awning which reaches out to meet, but doesn’t quite touch, the similar shape of the evergreen branches across from it, and by the elliptical white tabletops, which create a poetic rhyming with the radiant stars above.
It’s interesting to note that not only is this likely the first time Van Gogh painted a starry sky, but, according to astronomical records, the position of the stars in Café Terrace at Night is accurate for the dates it was painted. And, you’ll be happy to know, that the café in Arles, which still exists, has affectionately been renamed Café Van Gogh.