“The night is more vivid and richly colored than the day” – a quote that Vincent Van Gogh experienced as an artist and proved it in his paintings starting with the Cafe terrace at night. Van Gogh painted this masterpiece in September 1888 in oil on canvas in France. When first exhibited in 1891, the painting was titled Coffee, In the evening. It now adorns the walls of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. The starry sky which is also illuminating as the orange-lit cafe below shows just how much Van Gogh loved painting the night sky. It is this love that will lead him to make another of his masterpieces – The starry Night. But what is so special about this piece that makes tourists from all over the world visit a small cafe hidden in the streets of France to this day? And why is it worth around $200 million?
Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at night also known as The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum in a typical cloisonnist style, the subjects of the composition are painted flat and the artwork is outlined using what appears to be a black color. One thing many people don’t know is that Van Gogh avoided using black in this painting because he wanted to capture all the vibrant colors of the night sky. The painting is also influenced by Japanese woodblock prints – a method that revolves around relief carvings and the conscious application of color. Van Gogh painted the cafe live and not from memory. Interestingly, the site was renovated in 1990-91 to replicate Van Gogh’s painting and the cafe was renamed Café Van Gogh. It still exists to this day and continues to attract art lovers of the whole world. Although the painting is unusually unsigned by the artist, there is evidence that it was made by him. He mentioned the painting three times in letters. After completing the painting, he wrote a letter to his sister saying:
“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the exterior of a café in the evening has given me in the last few days. On the terrace, there are small figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern illuminates the terrace, the facade, the sidewalk, and even projects light on the cobblestones of the street which takes on a purplish pink hue. The gables of the houses on a receding street under the star-studded blue sky are dark blue or purple, with a green tree. Here is now a night painting without black. With nothing but beautiful blues, purples and greens, and in these surroundings the illuminated square is a pale sulfur, lime green color.
This letter helped several admirers learn more about Van Gogh’s thought process and why he avoided using black – a very common color choice for painting the night sky.
Influenced by religion?
It is suggested that this painting is similar to The last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci simply because the main characters seen at the cafe include a long-haired central character who is surrounded by 12 other people. On top of that, through shines in the background of the composition. The artist has also included several cross-like shapes throughout the painting. The shadow on the left may very well represent Judas. Van Gogh was known to be fascinated by religion and wanted to “preach the gospel everywhere” given that his father was a pastor of a Dutch Reformed church. The artist wrote to his brother two weeks after painting this work: “That does not prevent me from having a terrible need – dare I say – for religion. So I go out at night to paint the stars and I always dream of a painting like that with a group of living figures from my friends. However, there is no way to say for sure that Van Gogh aimed to emulate The Last Supper in his painting. It can be just a waiter serving a group of people and a person entering the cafe for a job.
When Van Gogh painted this masterpiece, he was known to be in a very cheerful mood. This was before spending a year in the mental hospital (1889-1890) and he wanted to explore the theme of religion and astronomy through his paintings. He studied the night sky in detail and preferred live painting to painting from memory or imagination. What is interesting about this painting is that the star positions used in the night sky are accurate according to astronomical data. This has allowed historians to track the date he made this masterpiece since he chose not to sign or date. The painting was made on September 17 or 18, 1888.
This calming work of art reflects the spirit of the artist at that time. Van Gogh was happy and wanted to explore what the night sky looks like in different lights – using anything but black. He will then continue to paint the sky further Starry night over the Rhône and The starry Night. Even if one hangs a copy of this painting in one’s living room, it is sure to teleport the viewer to this quiet street in France.
Next step in behind the art: Why is the Mona Lisa so famous and what led her to have the most expensive insurance policy in history, valued at $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $650 million in 2018?
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