GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)

The Night Café in the Place Lamartine in Arles

September 1888, Arles
Oil on canvas, 71 x 90 cm
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Catalogue numbers: F 463, JH 1575.

In the 1880s, gas lamps had spread as far as the provinces in France. The theme of artificial lighting was quickly dealt with in van Gogh's famous masterpiece, The Night Café in the Place Lamartine in Arles. In this painting the figures huddled at the tables have a lost air, and empty glasses bear witness to the excesses of alcoholism. But by the rear wall sits a couple locked in an embrace; in fact the background affords a fair amount of comfort, with a bunch of whitish flowers and a curtained doorway opening into a bright, cheerful room. Still, van Gogh insists on seeing the composition in negative terms. It is the lamps alone that highlight the dismal, wretched hopelessness of the atmosphere. Their glaring brightness mercilessly exposes what subdued candlelight would allow to remain hidden. The steady, impersonal light renders everything pitilessly and coldly anonymous.