When you think of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, what is the one painting that comes to your mind? Most probably The Starry Night, it is, after all, his most famous painting. But before The Starry Night, there was another night just as starry, just as beautiful. The Café Terrace at Night is the first painting featuring a deep-blue night sky lit with tiny discs of stars, the same blue sky which many people know Van Gogh for.
Let’s go back to September 1888 when Van Gogh decided to take a different approach in painting a night scene and captured the beautiful essence of a French café filled with patrons, emanating light and warmth in the cold and blue night.
The structure of the painting
When looking at any painting, it is important to note what’s the first thing you see in the painting. Most artists place the primary subject at the center of the canvas. But in this painting, there is no subject. Or is there?
People are spread all over the scene but they are not the subject. The painting can be divided into vertical halves; the left side has the yellow-orange lit café while the right side has the blue-green city. The same can be done with the horizontal halves, the upper side having the deep-blue sky while the lower side with cobbled ground bathed in light. Every half is a contrast of light and night.
The perspective is limiting, cutting off the sides. Neither the café on the left nor the tree on the right is visible completely. The road on which the artist is standing goes long and that too is not visible completely because the artist is standing aligned to the cafe.
What makes this painting unique
Apart from being the first painting by Van Gogh to feature a night sky and the precursor to the famous Starry Night, there are a lot of things that make this painting unique. Of course, the painting looks beautiful, but there’s something more going on on the canvas. And a question comes to mind; Why is the night not dark?
Van Gogh in his letters to his sister explained his desire to make a painting of the night, but instead of making it dark or grey, he wanted to show the life of night, the vibrance of it, and the dance of the colors of light and the darkness of the night that bring a beautiful scene.
The traditional method of painting the night scene was that the artist would first create a rough sketch of the scene in the daytime and then paint the painting later, filling the colors from the imagination. Van Gogh did not want to take this route.
He wanted to paint this painting in-situ or on-the-spot, at night. He wanted to capture the real colors of the night and give the viewers a first-hand experience of what it was like to be near a café terrace at night in a contrast of light and dark.
He also chose not to use black color to paint the night. None of his night paintings are “dark”. He used deep blue color to show that the night is not just inhabited by darkness, but there are stars as well. We are used to seeing the blue sky when the sun is out. Van Gogh showed that if the stars are out, why would the sky be completely dark?
There are multiple names for this painting, some of which include Terrasse du Café le Soir which translates to “Café Terrace in the Evening.” Another name for this painting is Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. In his letters to his sister, Van Gogh said that the night is more colorful than the day. And by looking at the painting, he was true.
The interaction of blues, yellows, oranges, and green brings the true color of the night. This is why it makes you feel what it would be like to sit under the gaslight in the café, perhaps drinking coffee while you stare at the night sky, filled with twinkling stars.
People are walking on the streets, some inside the café, a server is serving and in the distance, a horse carriage advances towards the painter. The cypress tree, which is also very common in many of Van Gogh’s paintings, including The Starry Night is on the right side.
Painting and real life
Many people might not know this but the café seen in this painting is actually a real place, not sprung from the imagination of the painter, like the one in Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. Today, the café featured here is named Café Van Gogh. But that is not the only accurate depiction in this painting.
When Van Gogh said he wanted to paint this painting in situ, he meant that. The stars in the sky are not painted arbitrarily. The position of the stars is scientifically accurate and that has allowed us to track the date he made this painting. It was September 17 or 18 in 1888 that this night was captured.
A religious metaphor?
Interpreting the artist’s intentions in creating the elements of a painting can often be misleading, and wrong. This is why we never say what the artist was trying to show, but rather what we see in it and find unique. But that does not stop people from trying to find hidden meaning in paintings. We are not saying that these people are wrong, we’re just saying that it is almost impossible to confirm whether they are right.
In 2013, a researcher submitted papers on possible allusions to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper painting in this one. If you look at the café, the man garbed in white standing in the middle is surrounded by people. At the back, the window frame makes a cross behind. This could indicate the man in white is Christ. There are 12 people in the café, 11 seated and one standing close to the café, possibly referring to Judas.
It can be true since Van Gogh was religious. But as established before, there is no way of confirming that this was what Van Gogh wanted to show. And this makes the painting more interesting. Christ and his followers are there if you look at it and at the same time, these are just patrons of the café while the waiter serves them. This concludes the article.
Here are some other paintings by Van Gogh that we know you’ll love to know more about. Take a look