Van Gogh Terrasse Cafe Night Analysis Essay
“When I have a terrible need for religion, I go outside and paint the stars.”
One of the most storied and celebrated artists, Vincent van Gogh, is also one of the most scrutinized and let’s be honest, over-analyzed. For decades, scholars have painstakingly chronicled over 800 letters from his own pen. His autobiographical account, with penetrating insights into life, literature and art, is in a class by itself. Over the last century, a second canon has emerged: hundreds of academic books and papers that dissect the man down to his most minute brush stroke. How, then, is it possible that one of his most famous paintings, Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, was not properly identified as a Symbolist Last Supper?
Through careful examination of his letters, we will discover the deeper meaning within this masterpiece by correctly defining what Symbolist art meant to Vincent, deconstructing several canvasses he was concurrently crafting, and finally, by delving into the painting, itself.
Among van Gogh scholars, debates still rage whether Vincent even dabbled in the form. Largely, because “Symbolist art” is hard to define and means different things to different people. Ask five art historians? You’ll likely get six definitions. But clarifying the genre as Vincent understood it is vital to appreciating how he thought, worked and tried to inspire his fellow artists within the movement. It shall not daunt us.
Vincent painted in the 1880s, during the juvenilia of Symbolism. This is Symbolism with a capital ‘S’, a specific 19th-century artistic movement; different from symbolism, with a lowercase ‘s’, that topic you either loved or loathed in high school English class. The genesis of Symbolist art can be traced to the father of French Romanticism, Eugène Delacroix when he wrote:
There is an emotion peculiar to painting […] what one might call the music of the painting. Before you even know what the painting represents […] when you are too far away from it […] you are conquered by this magical accord.
To quote that rock and roll powerhouse Boston, it’s “More Than a Feeling.”
Delacroix’s words inspired today’s generally accepted progenitor of the Symbolist movement, poet Charles Baudelaire. Now, Vincent was not a fan. We’ll learn why when we explore his letters. It can, however, be said that an important component to Symbolist art is Baudelaire’s notion of Correspondences, which simply put, is a “complex play of associations” or, a “multiplicity of metaphors.” Art historian Henri Dorra explained:
…that romantic poetic vision was characterized not so much by the mere use of metaphor (a characteristic of all relatively mature poetry) as by the richness and multiplicity of its metaphors, which, when released by a well-stocked memory and governed by an intuitive imagination, could bring forth a complex play of associations.
This not only lends itself to the practice of allegory, but strives beyond as it requires an artist’s multiplicity of metaphors to find fertile ground in a viewer’s intuitive imagination. The labyrinthine creative makes esoteric demands of his audience. The gnostic viewer delights in puzzling over a myriad of symbols and connections. Curiously, a similar tradition permeated Vincent’s youth.
“The idea is that a poem is a picture, and a picture, a poem. Artistic lines between genres are blurred, ideally, synesthetically.”
In 1990, Japanese art historian Tsukasa Kōdera, an outsider to Western thought, brought a fresh perspective to the debate. He spent the entirety of the first chapter from his seminal work, Vincent van Gogh: Christianity vs. Nature, explicating Dominocratie; the dominant role exacted by the Dutch clergy in their culture’s thought and literature. He illustrated their practice of Bijschriften-poëzie, which means poem-image. In a majority of their published books, a Dutch theologian would take an image and caption it with poetic thoughts. The idea is that a poem is a picture, and a picture, a poem. Artistic lines between genres are blurred, ideally, synesthetically. This is also an important tenet of Symbolist art. Correspondences seek to completely bedazzle the senses. In his youth, while studying for the priesthood, between devout bouts of brutal masochism, Vincent practiced this art form.
Funeral Procession in the Wheat Field – Jacob Jan van der Maaten (with inscriptions by Vincent van Gogh)
In the margins of this lithograph, Vincent wrote verses from Mark, Luke and John, also a Dutch hymn and a Longfellow poem. The point being, each passage was evoked in Vincent when he viewed this final procession. Considering Bijschriften-poëzie as a form of Correspondences offers an insight into Vincent’s creative process.
In 2000, art historian Debora Silverman refined and redefined Vincent’s forays into Symbolist art. She wrote:
Van Gogh’s art had evolved by 1888 into a symbolist project that can be called ‘sacred realism,’ a project of divinity made concrete and discovering the infinite in weighted tangibility.
Silverman does not believe Vincent’s sacred realism embraces the concept of Correspondences, but that’s a debate for another day. She did explain, as have several other van Gogh scholars, that when Vincent wrote his brother Theo…
You must realize that if you arrange them this way, say the Woman rocking a cradle in the middle and the two canvases of sunflowers to the right and left, it makes a sort of triptych.
Sunflowers (London version); Berceuse (Otterlo version); Sunflowers (Munich version) – Vincent van Gogh
…he meant it to be understood as some kind of Virgin Mary, perhaps even a Madonna and Child. Opinions differ. Preeminent van Gogh scholar Evert van Uitert explained:
The image created is that of an altarpiece in which Madame Roulin takes on the role of the Virgin Mary and […] the sunflowers can be associated with Christ. By employing the triptych form Vincent intensifies the religious aspect, but it remains no more than one facet of the work; one of the possible interpretations of this realistic image. Vincent wants to retain the guise of observable reality even when he transforms this reality in his paintings.
“The flower that turns its bloom towards the sun has a long history as a symbol – of the Christian soul.” Van Uitert couched his opinion that Vincent’s religious depiction is but a single dimension of a multi-faceted aspiration. “Silverman, however, giving us more context, believes Vincent was more purposeful:
He devised the Berceuse as a type of Protestant counter-imagery to the dynamic supernaturalism he encountered in Provencal Catholic culture.
“He was constantly bombarded with images of the Virgin and her Son.”
Silverman supplied many new insights to its composition. Briefly, the sunflowers, suggestive of torches or candelabras, floral wallpaper, red and green color fields, and “lullaby” title are all highly evocative of Flemish Renaissance Madonnas. Further, Vincent painted five different iterations during the spectacle of an expansive two-month Arlesian Nativity festival. He was constantly bombarded with images of the Virgin and her Son. Finally, La Berceuse bears striking reminiscences to Antwerp’s Andrieskerk Maris Stella, which Vincent revered.
If it is a Madonna and Child, where is the infant Christ? The rope looped around the woman’s finger rocks the cradle of her newborn child. Vincent wrote he hoped that some viewers, “would feel they were there, inside the cradle.” In this sense, the rope can be symbolic of an umbilicus, connecting the viewer to the painting. Perhaps Vincent has suggested, whomever views this painting, head-on, is the Christ child. Talk about breaking the fourth wall. Silverman concluded:
His Berceuse culminated his art of sacred realism, shorn of miraculous rescues and visionary ruminations but nonetheless vested with spiritual force and the consoling function associated with religious art.
Do you think that over the same period he conceived Sunflowers and La Berceuse as a Madonna and Child, his “consoling” experiments precluded or anticipated innovating a Last Supper?
To earn a more robust understanding about Vincent’s Symbolist art, we will consider several artistic influences he was parsing over the summer of 1888: colorizing Barbizon master Jean-François Millet’s pious genre scenes with Delacroix’s luminous palette, the genius of Rembrandt’s subtle symbolism, and the search, with his brother Theo and artist comrades Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and others, for a “Southern Renaissance” of twelve “artist-apostles.”
Vincent’s letters to Bernard grant unparalleled insight into Vincent’s mind. Not only did Vincent consider himself the teacher in this relationship, he felt unencumbered in baring his most intimate thoughts. In the summer of 1888, Bernard began studying the Bible. The son of a pastor, and once a lay-preacher, himself, Vincent wryly encouraged him, exalting:
An artist greater than all artists – disdaining marble and clay and paint – working in LIVING FLESH. I.e. this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books….. he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals. That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.
Although he detested organized religion after his many failures with it, Vincent still worshiped Jesus Christ. Their discussions about the Bible and Symbolism began to unfurl. This first exchange inspired Vincent to revisit an image he had practiced many times, Millet’s Sower. Now, however, he would tackle it from a new angle, as he explained:
Can we now paint the sower with color, with simultaneous contrast between yellow and purple for example (like Delacroix’s Apollo ceiling, which is precisely yellow and purple), yes or no? Yes — definitely.
Unleashing himself from perceived convention, Vincent was devising a symbolic language that resonated through color itself. A few months later, he revelled in the throes of his new artistic style, reflecting:
Later on, when I’ve taken those experiments further, the sower will still be the first attempt in that genre. The night café is a continuation of the sower, as is the head of the old peasant and of the poet…
The Sower with Setting Sun – Vincent van Gogh (1888)
Vincent was not referring to Café Terrace, but to The Night Café. He penned this sentiment hours after completing the latter, hours before beginning the former, outside at night on the Place du Forum in the center of Arles; further actualizing his newfound, undoubtedly symbolic genre.
As Vincent and Bernard’s discussions about the possibilities of a new, symbolic, and distinctly Biblical Renaissance in art blossomed, Bernard invoked the Symbolist poetry of Charles Baudelaire, mailing this quatrain:
Rembrandt – sad hospital filled full with murmurings
Decorated only with a great crucifix
Where the tearful prayer exhales from the filth,
And brusquely traversed by a ray of winter.
Vincent immediately seethed:
Ah… Rembrandt…. all admiration for Baudelaire aside — I venture to assume, especially on the basis of those verses…. that he knew more or less nothing about Rembrandt. I’ve just found and bought here a little etching after Rembrandt, a study of a nude man, realistic and simple; he’s standing, leaning against a door or column in a dark interior. A ray of light from above skims his downturned face and the bushy red hair. You’d think it a Degas for the body, true and felt in its animality. But see, have you ever looked closely at ‘the ox’ or the interior of a butcher’s shop in the Louvre? You haven’t looked closely, and Baudelaire infinitely less so.
Christ at the Column – Eugene Gaujean; Slaughtered Ox – Rembrandt
The etching Vincent mentioned is Eugene Gaujean’s Christ at the Column. More on this influential contrapposto figure later. Why did Vincent think Bernard and Baudelaire failed to appreciate Rembrandt’s depiction of a seemingly straightforward ox carcass? Because they were unaware of its rich history. Today, it is widely accepted (among art history wonks) that Rembrandt distilled the essence of a storied Flemish vanitas tradition that depicted the Prodigal Son parable by prominently featuring a flayed carcass as allegorical of Christ’s crucifixion; which Vincent certainly knew. But there’s much more to it than that. The ox is also the symbol of Saint Luke. That summer, Vincent had reminded Bernard:
The symbol of Saint Luke, the patron of painters, is, as you know, an ox; we must therefore be as patient as an ox if we wish to labor in the artistic field.
He further explained:
The patron of painters––St Luke––physician, painter, evangelist — having for his symbol––alas––nothing but the ox––is there to give us hope.
This is fertile ground to examine how Vincent viewed symbolism. Numerous Correspondences are all happening at once in the Rembrandt: the butchered ox stands for Christ, for His crucifixion, but also for Luke, and also for butchers, and painters, and evangelists, and patience, and labor, and suffering and even castration. An allegorical self-portrait of the artist’s true plight and destiny, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox ultimately embodies salvation as the artist lives on forever in his canvas. This is what the great minds ponder. Vincent chided Bernard’s lack of perception:
I can only reply, come on, just look a little more closely than that; really, it’s worth the effort a thousand times over. […] And to enjoy such a thing is like coitus, the moment of the infinite
“Nothing less than aesthetic ecstasy had become Vincent’s goal.”
Nothing less than aesthetic ecstasy had become Vincent’s goal. Discovering a hidden symbol on one’s own is the Eureka moment. Just as exciting; the moment an artist creates one, opening in essence, a conduit to the universe. In the same breath Vincent derided Bernard’s ignorance of Flemish symbolism, he praised one of Bernard’s ten pictures of a brothel he had just received:
A thousand thanks for sending your drawings. I very much like […] the one washing herself, a grey effect embellished with black, white, yellow, brown. It’s charming.
A Woman Washing Herself – Émile Bernard
He was coy in his praise. The same day he applauded to Theo it was, “very Rembrandtesque.” And what is so “Rembrandtesque” about this prostitute washing herself? Perhaps because it is the first example of either artist crafting a subject within window mullions that form a cross as though bearing a crucifix. Vincent would add this image and the contrapposto Christ to his “well-stocked memory.”
Vincent’s search for a “Southern Renaissance of Biblical Symbolism” was influenced by a style Bernard had been developing, Cloisonnism. Almost a knee-jerk reaction to Georges Seurat’s Pointillism, which Bernard and fellow artist Louis Anquetin considered a “reduction of pictorial intensity, resulting in static, wooden figures,” they developed this form. They took a cue from Japanese prints, by outlining bold, flat color fields with dark contours, giving their work a stained glass window effect.
Vincent introduced the newly imported Japanese prints to both Bernard and Anquetin while living in Paris; perhaps even Hiroshige’s View of the Theater Street by Night. Vincent owned this print and art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov explained that it likely inspired both Anquetin’s Avenue de Clichy and Vincent’s Café Terrace.
Night View of Saruwakacho Theatre Street – Utagawa Hiroshige; Avenue de Clichy – Louis Anquetin
Art critic Edouard Dujardin hailed Avenue de Clichy as “the first appearance of a rather new and special manner,” defining the style as Cloisonnism. Vincent’s feelings about this review were mixed. While he was elated for Anquetin to receive such acclaim, he knew Bernard and Anquetin had developed the style together. He also believed Bernard had surpassed Anquetin’s attempts in this new art form. He thus shared Bernard’s ire that Dujardin failed to mention Bernard’s contributions. From then on, Bernard would be guarded about who should receive critical acclaim for movement births, like Symbolism. While devising his first Symbolist project, The Sower with Setting Sun, Vincent praised the symbolism and influence from Anquetin’s Harvest:
There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow, but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the colour. Better to make naive almanac pictures — old country almanacs, where hail, snow, rain, fine weather are represented in an utterly primitive way. The way Anquetin got his Harvest so well. I don’t hide from you that I don’t detest the countryside — having been brought up there, snatches of memories from past times, yearnings for that infinite of which the Sower, the sheaf, are the symbols, still enchant me as before. But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind?
The Harvest – Louis Anquetin (1887)
Vincent wouldn’t tackle a starry night until Café Terrace several months later. “Always on his mind,” it would be a distinctly Symbolist venture as his “search for sacred art” incorporated Cloisonnism with his plein air and impasto techniques; developing an identity all his own.
We will briefly consider one more example, so far, overlooked by art historians. Vincent’s Quay with Sand Barges is a Symbolist rendering of Delacroix’s Christ Asleep during the Tempest.
Quay with Sand Barges – Vincent van Gogh (1888); Christ Asleep during the Tempest – Eugène Delacroix (ca. 1853)
Vincent loved this Delacroix, praising it in five summer, 1888 letters, with descriptions like:
Delacroix paints a Christ using an unexpected light lemon note, this colorful and luminous note in the painting being what the ineffable strangeness and charm of a star is in a corner of the firmament.
He wrote Theo, the “little lemon yellow for the halo, the aureole — speaks a symbolic language through color itself.” Delacroix created a representation that anyone with eyes, despite knowing anything about Christianity, could at least, on a visceral level, understand. The men fear for their lives. Except one. He must know something the others do not. He knows, they will be okay. The Delacroix is, at the very least, a drama that inspires the curious viewer to learn more about this boat full of men in perilous waters.
When we consider Quay with Sand Barges replicates not only the color of Delacroix’s sea and likeness of his boat, but also, as evidenced in an earlier sketch, Vincent has transformed Arles’ cityscape into a mountain; there is little doubt the Delacroix heavily inspired Vincent’s composition. In fact, we need only read this admonition to Bernard when he gifted it to him, “If the study I’m sending you in exchange doesn’t suit you, just look at it a little longer,” repeating this demand again in the next paragraph; echoing earlier calls to study Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox more carefully. Or, as I would sometimes like to scream, in my best Jessie from Toy Story 2 voice, “Dammit, Bernard, there’s symbols in there!”
How bold should an artist be in allegory crafting? There are vast tracts of land. An as-yet uncontacted South American tribe could supply a gut-level interpretation of Christ Asleep During the Tempest. The same cannot be said for the Slaughtered Ox. While the ox was a common European symbol four hundred years ago, today its meaning is largely lost. Even farther down the scale, to perceive the symbolism in Quay with Sand Barges, requires an intimate understanding of Vincent and his relationship with Bernard. Writing about his Sower with Setting Sun, Vincent hoped to inspire the largest group possible:
I’m beginning more and more to look for a simple technique that perhaps isn’t Impressionist. I’d like to paint in such a way that if it comes to it, everyone who has eyes could understand it.
But was his inspiration successful? His words invoke the Biblical parable of the Sower. And as I write this, seed falls barren on the reader who does not comprehend my reference (assuming such a reader has made it this far). One can only cast a net so wide, but still hopes the diligent neophyte discovers, through research if need-be, the deeper meaning. Crafting an allegory that is subtle enough to evoke that sense of awe puzzling-it-out-on-your-own provides, but can also be understood by many, comes down to a lucky stroke of artistic genius. Perhaps, while dining one evening in Arles, just such a thing happened to Vincent. And perhaps, careful viewers today will discover that his Symbolist art sought to sow the seed of Christ’s message.
To be continued…
Part 2 of 2 of this article can be found here.
Café Terrace at Night, also known as The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, is an oil painting executed by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh while at Arles, France, in mid-September 1888. The painting is not signed, but described and mentioned by the artist in three letters.
Visitors to the site can still stand at the northeastern corner of the Place du Forum, where the artist set up his easel. He looked south towards the artificially lit terrace of the popular coffee house, as well as into the enforced darkness of the rue du Palais leading up to the building structure (to the left, not pictured) and, beyond this structure, the tower of a former church (now Musée Lapidaire). Towards the right, Van Gogh indicated a lighted shop as well, and some branches of the trees surrounding the place—but he omitted the remainders of the Roman monuments just beside this little shop.
The painting is currently at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.
After finishing Café Terrace at Night, Van Gogh wrote a letter to his sister expressing his enthusiasm:
I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. 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. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.
He continues, in this same letter,
You never told me if you had read Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-ami, and what you now think of his talent in general. I say this because the beginning of Bel-ami is precisely the description of a starry night in Paris, with the lighted cafés of the boulevard, and it’s something like the same subject that I’ve painted just now.
This excerpt forms the basis of the Van Gogh Museum's curators' opinion that the painting is a depiction "of drinkers in the harsh, bright lights of their illuminated facades" from Maupassant's novel Bel Ami, however, they also note that Maupassant makes no mention of a 'starry sky.' In 1981, Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov argued that since it "displays not only a night scene but also a funnel-like perspective and dominant blue-yellow tonality" it was at least partially inspired by Louis Anquetin'sAvenue de Clichy: 5 o'clock in the evening.
An academic paper presented at IAFOR's 2013 European Conference on Arts & Humanities, however, advanced the theory that van Gogh intended the painting to be a uniquely innovated Last Supper. The paper was subsequently published by The Art Histories Society in the January, 2014 Art History Supplement and the July, 2014 fourteenth volume of The Anistoriton Journal of History, Archaeology and Art History.
Briefly, the paper examines the myriad artistic influences van Gogh was parsing the summer of 1888: his lifelong devotion to and imitation of Jesus Christ; synthesizing Japonism and Cloisonnism with his own plein air techniques; colorizing Jean-François Millet's pious genre scenes with Eugène Delacroix's luminous palette (see Boats du Rhône); "search-for-sacred-realism" correspondence with his artist friend Émile Bernard; Thomas Carlyle and Boccaccio's examples of dressing old ideas in new clothes; an Émile Burnouf article claiming Buddhist missionaries sowed the seeds Essenes later reaped as Christianity; failed attempts creating his own Christ in the Garden of Olives; two proximal Last Supper studies (Interior of a Restaurant in Arles and Interior of the Restaurant Carrel in Arles) featuring straw-bottomed chairs he'd just purchased by the dozen (hoping to start a commune of twelve "artist-apostles" at his Yellow House); culminating with his composition of twelve diners drenched in a yellow halo surrounding a Rembrandtesque server framed by a crucifix at the vanishing point of the picture; it's concluded his original starry night is a Symbolist'sLast Supper.
Although van Gogh never explicitly mentioned his intent in any existing letter, he did write his brother Theo two weeks later, "That doesn't stop me having a terrible need for - dare I say the word - for religion. So I go outside at night to paint the stars and I always dream a painting like that with a group of living figures of the pals."
When exhibited for the first time, in 1891, the painting was entitled Coffeehouse, in the evening (Café, le soir).
This is the first painting in which he used starry backgrounds; he went on to paint star-filled skies in Starry Night Over the Rhône (painted the same month), and the better known The Starry Night a year later. Van Gogh also painted a starlight background in Portrait of Eugène Boch. Van Gogh mentioned the Cafe Terrace painting in a letter written to Eugène Boch on October 2, 1888, writing he had painted "a view of the café on place du Forum, where we used to go, painted at night" (emphasis van Gogh's).
In popular culture
The painting and the café were both featured in the 1956 film Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas and later in "Vincent and the Doctor" (2010), the fully painted film Loving Vincent (2017), and the tenth episode in the fifth series of British science fiction television series Doctor Who.
"This is a night painting without black, with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green and in this surrounding the illuminated area colors itself sulfur pale yellow and citron green."
Coordinates: 43°40′39″N4°37′38″E / 43.67750°N 4.62722°E / 43.67750; 4.62722
(F1519) Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection.
- ^See www.vangoghletters.org, Advanced Search
- ^The site was refurbished in 1990/91 to replicate Van Gogh's painting.
- ^ abcLetter 678 (in French) from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, Arles, 9 and 16 September 1888
- ^Welsh-Ovcharov, Bogomila: Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism (!), Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 24 January - 22 March 1981 and Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, 9 April - 14 June 1989 ISBN 0-919876-66-8
- ^See Art History Supplement vol. 4, issue 1Archived 2014-01-06 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^See Anistoriton Journal of History, Archaeology and Art History Volume 14
- ^Letter to Eugene Boch mentioning the Cafe TerraceArchived 2012-07-29 at Archive.is
- ^"A Brush with Genius". Doctor Who Confidential. Series 5. Episode 10. 5 June 2010. BBC. BBC Three.
- ^"Vincent van Gogh Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works". The Art Story. Retrieved 2017-08-24.