The Color of Genius: Van Gogh’s Night Café
Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888,
oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 36 1/4″ (©Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark)
In early September, 1888, nine months before he entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote a series of letters to his sister Wilhelmina and brother Theo, which detailed his objective in painting The Night Café. In composite form, this text functions as both a roadmap of the robust complementary color scheme employed by the artist and an evocative explanation of the emotional substance of color, then a driving concern in the artist’s work.
I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café illuminated by lamps. A few poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is blood red and dark yellow, and there under the gaslight the green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the floor. There are four yellow-lemon lamps with a glow of orange and green. 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.
In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. . . the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens. 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. I have tried to express the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all of this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulpher.
—Vincent van Gogh. Letters to Theo van Gogh. Written 8-10 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, published in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Publisher: Bulfinch, 1991, numbers 533, 534, W07.
The primary, secondary and tertiary colors of the Color Wheel.
In one letter, Van Gogh mused aloud that this color palette would cause his mentor, Hermanus Gijsbertus Tersteeg (note below), to peg The Night Café as “delirium tremens in full swing” (Letter 534). It may have struck contemporary viewers as Van Gogh feared. Today, however, when standing in front of the painting, one marvels in how effectively the painter deployed that many different shades of green. Further, when one considers Night Café (and indeed other Van Gogh paintings from this decade before his death) in relation to the works of his contemporaries—Monet, Pissarro and Degas—one truly grasps Van Gogh’s monumental genius in the realm of color.
Claude Monet, Montagnes de l”Estére,1888,
oil on canvas, 65 X 92 cm, (© Courtauld Institute of Art, London)
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, 1888,
pastel and charcoal on paper, 18.5 x 23.75″
(©National Gallery, London)
Camille Jacob Pissarro, Vue de Bazincourt, 1889,
watercolor over graphite on plain weave cotton pasted to pulpboard, 8 1/16 x 10 1/16
In viewing the painting its hard to imagine that the painter has managed to effectively utilize By separating objects from their “local” (true optical) color, the artist freed himself to explore the inner nature of an object—its symbolism and emotional content. This bit of innovation was to directly influence the next generation of artists, most notably Matisse, and lay the ground work for 20th century artists to abandon realistic representation of objects altogether in search of emotional reality.
Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946,
oil on linen (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique).
Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Composition II, 1909–10,
oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 51 5/8″
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 45.961.Vasily Kandinsky © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)
Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat, 1946,
oil and enamel on canvas, 54 x 43 inches
(The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 76.2553.149.
Jackson Pollock © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York).
Note: Van Gogh had worked briefly under Tersteeg (1845-1927) when he was employed as a clerk in his uncle’s art gallery Goupil et Cie in The Hague in 1869, before being promoted and transferred to the company’s London office.