Vincent Van Gogh – Cafe Terrace at Night

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Vincent Van Gogh painted yet one more variant of his night sky work in Café Terrace at Night, completed while in Arles in 1888. Painted using oils on a canvas of 81 x 65.5 cm, Café Terrace at Night is one of Van Gogh’s best known paintings. It bears some striking similarities to the two other Starry Night paintings, but also a few variations.

Kept today in the Kroller-Muller Museum of Otterlo, Netherlands, Café Terrace at Night represented the fusion of much of what Van Gogh learned during his time in France with what he had already developed. His time in Arles in particular and in this painting has long been cited as an example of the Impressionist shift in his work going into the last two years of his life. Merely comparing this painting with the Starry Night over the Rhone which he completed later that month, the shifts are incredibly apparent.

The stars are much smaller and less absorbed in their own light in this painting. Also, there is a bright yellow wall that draws much of the attention in the painting. While the other paintings are known to focus the attention on the stars and force the observer to move the eyes about, Café Terrace at Night gives a point for the observer to relax and focus on a single point. In contrast, the dark city on the right of the painting creates a sense of balance that does not permeate his other paintings.

The café Van Gogh used as his centerpiece in the painting still exists in Arles, though it has now been renamed to Café Van Gogh and has long been a unique setting for a painting by Van Gogh, a man who typically did not use such warm colors and careful perspective depth. Despite its comparison to the other two Starry Night paintings, Café Terrace at Night is the first painting in which he painted the night sky. The famous precursor to Starry Night, Starry Night over the Rhone was painted later in the same month.

In Van Gogh’s own words, this work was a revelation, and he described it in great detail in a letter to his sister. He described the “immense yellow lantern [illuminating] the terrace, the façade, the side walk and even [casting] light on the paving stones of the road which take a pinkish violet tone.” He spoke of how much he enjoyed painting the café terrace on the street at night rather than sketching the night sky and working on it in a studio during the day.

He describes how the conventional depiction of night is too dull, utilizing only the most basic of white lights. The colors and tones of night are too great for such a simple approach though as he said even candles were awash with amazing tones of yellow and orange. This painting represents much of what Van Gogh would later attempt with color and form.

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