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Arts and Entertainment

Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night: Defiance before Doom

Vincent van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night is a masterpiece of post-Impressionism, presaging a violent end to a remarkable life.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/rishivridha/" target="_self">Rishi Vridhachalam</a>

Rishi Vridhachalam

November 28, 2022

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s “Loving Vincent” (2017) elevates art imitating art to a profound experience. This Academy Award-nominated film was initially shot with live actors, which were then replaced with over 65,000 painted frames on over 1000 canvases. It is quite literally “the world’s first fully painted film”. 

The movie is a poignant account of Vincent van Gogh’s tortured last days and his tragic and mysterious death. Be it the evocative self-portraits or The Sunflowers” or “The Night Cafeor “Starry Night”, these paintings are given a new purpose in the skilled hands of Kobiela and Welchman. But one painting that serves as a backdrop for van Gogh’s stay at Arles in southern France struck a chord in me: “Café Terrace at Night

Painted in 1888, on location, “Café Terrace” is a masterpiece of post-Impressionism. Luscious dollops of vibrantly colored paint in citron and yellow and blue reveal deliberate and shortened strokes of the paintbrush and palette knife (‘impasto”). Employing different perspectives, it serves as an expression of the artist’s emotional and psychological responses to the world around him. 

Beneath a blue starry sky, the bright lights of Café Terrace serve as the focal point. A few patrons and some casual pedestrians add to the nonchalance and a subdued sense of action in the scene, emphasized by the rolling motion of the innumerable short brush strokes. The open windows imbue the painting with the warm air of a summer’s night while the empty tables and seats beckon the viewer to some welcome refreshments. What could be more French than cobblestone streets and corner cafes?

Even after more than a hundred years have elapsed, one can picture in his mind’s eye the forlorn silhouette of van Gogh, standing at the street corner, a distant observer, his easel in front and palette in hand, furiously sketching and painting. Based on his letters to his family, it is well known that van Gogh treasured his stay in the French countryside, a welcome respite from his hurly-burly life in Paris. Yet, these wondrous days and nights were soon to be only a pleasant memory as tragedy would unfold. 

His violent conflict with his friend Paul Gauguin, his admission to the mental asylum, and his recovery and repeated relapses would engulf van Gogh’s life eventually leading to his suicide in 1890. With that in mind, it is difficult to ignore the underlying symbolism in Café Terrace. The bright hues stand out the most as if van Gogh was aware of the gathering storm and tried his best to infuse color into the grayness of his existence. 

In a letter to his sister Willemien after he finished the painting, van Gogh points out that “here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in these surroundings, the lighted square acquires a pale sulfur and greenish citron-yellow color.” A night without any black in it. Some critics have pointed out that the old adage that the candle burns brightest just before it goes out is apt in van Gogh’s circumstances. 

Shortly thereafter, the blue skies of “Café Terrace” and “Starry Sky” would give way to the utter darkness and forbidding void of violent and self-inflicted death. Thus, in a way, the colorful splendor of “Café Terrace at Night” then feels like van Gogh’s final act of defiance against his sense of impending doom.