Calling a van Gogh painting “ugly” would be blasphemous, well at least to me. And yet The Night Cafe is one of the ugliest paintings he has ever created on any canvas. The painting may look jarring and uneasy, perhaps someplace if Van Gogh is reading this article, he’d be smiling for I called this painting ugly. That’s because he wanted it to be ugly.
Something is unsettling about the scene. The night cafe, featured in this painting, is said to be open all night with people who either don’t have a place to stay or are too drunk to find one. Now that we know the patrons here in this cafe are not the most decent people, the cafe itself has a haunting appearance.
A reason, not related to the painting, for Van Gogh painting the cafe in such a bad form was because the owner of the cafe, Madame Ginoux had taken a lot of money from him. So this was his revenge, to paint the cafe in such a way that it looks haunted. He also painted portraits of Madame Ginoux. More on that later.
The eerie design of the cafe is because of how it has been painted. There is no symmetry in the lines, none. The place also seems to be warping, elongated, and contracted in the far end and expanding in the viewers’ end. But there’s more that’s working subtly to give this painting the “ugliness”.
Known to all artists and even Van Gogh himself that red and green are complementary to each other. But they are very harsh and punishing to the eyes of places together in excess. So an apple with green leaves will look good on a small table inside a room. But paint the room with garish green and red and you have this feeling of danger and restlessness.
The large gaslights in the ceiling are not helping the situation either. Giving the wooden floor a greenish-yellow tint, the whole place has turned gloomy. But why did Van Gogh make this cafe so terrible but the other cafe in Cafe Terrace at Night so warm, so beautiful?
In his letters to his brother Theo, he explained the reason for making such a painting. He knew what results he’d get after using that searing red and green combination that extensively. Here’s what he wrote:
I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.”Vincent Van Gogh
The green table
As we have always stated, you can always figure out what the artist wanted to be as the subject of the painting by looking at the center of the canvas. In this case, it is a billiards table. But the painting is about the cafe, why would the subject of the painting be this pool table?
The pool table is a very powerful agent in making this painting such a terrible beauty. Since placed in the center of both the canvas and the cafe, it is the first thing viewers pay attention to or the most attention to.
But look at it and see how malformed it is. The glaring asymmetry, the differently sized legs of the table, positioned at different places. The table is horrible to look at, almost making the viewer nauseous. But that’s not all.
If you notice, the pool table is the only thing in this painting that has a shadow because of the light hanging above it. Four visible lights are hanging overhead and only one of them creates a shadow. How does that make the painting more…unnatural?
Since the table is the only thing that has a shadow, it gets a sense of depth. You feel that the table is three-dimensional with a certain height. You can also figure out, by looking at the shadow of the table, where the light source is. But then you look around and things change.
Since no other element in the painting has any shadow, everything looks flat. This messes with our perspective even more. The jarring contrast of red and green, asymmetrical lines, warped space, and the uncanny mixing of three-dimensional central elements with everything else flat. What a mess, but what a beauty.
Another painting, same cafe
What most people don’t know is there was another painter who lived with Van Gogh for a brief period of time and painted this very cafe, but with a symmetrical perspective. The painter was Paul Gauguin, the painter who came to live with Van Gogh and helped setting up an association of artists.
Called the Night Cafe at Arles, the painting features Madame Ginoux, the owner of the cafe sitting with her chin resting on her hands. The same garish green and red are present in the background but the structure is symmetrical and the pool table looks like a normal one.
On the back, we see a lively table with three women and a man in a beard. Not confirmed, but I think the man is postman Joseph Roulin, whose portrait Van Gogh created. The three women look Japanese and we know that Van Gogh was inspired by Japanese print art. The man on the other table looks like The Zouave, but it is mere speculation from my side.
In conclusion, Van Gogh knew how he could create a painting that would make people feel uncomfortable. A painting that would look ugly, but in the structure not in the art, making the place look crooked and not the painter’s brush. This concludes the article.
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