Hope in the sinful world of Van Gogh’s ‘The Night Cafe’

Van Gogh called it “one of the ugliest pictures I have done,” so why do I find ‘The Night Cafe’ so deeply hopeful and perfect for Easter?

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Vincent van Gogh painted The Night Cafe in Arles, France, in September 1888. He’d taken a house there to paint the sun and flowers, and many of his iconic paintings come from his time there in rural southern France. He came for the light and the natural beauty, which is why it’s ironic that he also made The Night Cafe while there, a painting that Van Gogh himself calls, “One of the ugliest pictures I have done.”

The colors in the cafe (which, to be fair, are entirely made up by Van Gogh and aren’t actually how the place looked) are nasty and pallid. The artist seems to be dazed, looking down at the floor. The floorboards tilt up and race towards a door in the rear. The interior looks as if, if it were a person, it’s physically ill. The people inside look sick, or perhaps they’ve drowned their sorrows with one too many drinks.

Painting and struggling

You can almost empathize with Van Gogh himself feeling ill as he paints the scene. He admits that it appears he painted while suffering, “a full-blown case of delirium tremens.” He knows that, in spite of his lovely surroundings and productivity with painting while in Arles, he’s struggling more and more intensely with psychological issues.

The suffering at times is too much, and it’s around this time that he has an episode and cuts off a piece of his own ear. He quarrels with his artist friend Paul Gauguin who was staying in Arles with him (and painted his own version of the cafe). Gauguin couldn’t bear to be near Van Gogh anymore and soon fled. The two never spoke again.

Van Gogh doesn’t know how to fix himself. So, he stays up late into the night and paints. It’s all he can think to do. The amazing thing is, the more he suffers, the more beautiful his paintings become, the more they reveal that which only the genius of art can reveal. His skies are streaked with eternity. His flowers are blazing stars. His stars are new-born flowers. But every once in a while, in between the paintings of glittering gold fields of wheat and dark cypresses waving in midnight wind, there’s an outlier, something like The Night Cafe.

Beauty in dirty cafes

When I was a student, I used to stop by the Yale Art Museum between classes and look at The Night Cafe. It was my favorite painting in the entire museum. Somehow, it evinces deep beauty and hope. I always wondered why.

Perhaps it’s because personal suffering taught Van Gogh a lesson that only suffering can teach — that there’s beauty there, too. There’s beauty in sunflowers and there’s beauty in dirty cafes at midnight. There’s beauty in the stripping away of human comfort and finding ourselves at the very bottom from whence we can only look up. This isn’t to say that we ought to desire to suffer as Van Gogh did, or that it wasn’t a terrible, unfair cross for him to have to bear, but it’s simply a way of saying that if we have the eyes to see, every Good Friday has Easter morning.

Color and light in the night

Van Gogh sees it. In a letter to his brother Theo, he says, “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day. (…) The problem of painting night scenes and effects on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously.” In other words, the night isn’t simply the absence of day; it’s full of color. The light is here, too.

He goes on to tell his brother:

In my painting of the night café, I’ve tried to express the idea that the café is a place where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes. Anyway, I tried with contrasts of delicate pink and blood-red and wine-red. Soft Louis XV and Veronese green contrasting with yellow greens and hard blue greens. All of that in an ambience of a hellish furnace, in pale sulfur.

He isn’t romanticizing the scene or pretending that nothing is wrong.

A waiting place

But here’s why I wanted to write about this painting specifically at Easter. As I’ve looked at it over the years, I’ve wondered what is this cafe, really? It’s a waiting place. Van Gogh tells his brother, “Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” For those who have nowhere else to go, the cafe is open. They can come in and get warm. They can even fall asleep. The people inside the cafe are insensible and suffering, but they are not ejected from the space.

It’s a metaphor for sin. Spiritually, when we give in to our flaws and vices we become oppressed. We are powerless to arise. But even there in that dark place, the night cafe, we are given respite. Even in this place, there is light.

Do you remember how the floor slopes to the open door in the rear of the cafe? The whole architecture of the place is pointing to the exit. Past the wan yellow lamplight, the scent of flowers makes itself known even in this artificial atmosphere, beckoning the viewer to step through that open door, brightly lit with a particular shade of yellow that Van Gogh loves so much, the yellow that mimics the color his little yellow house in the countryside.

Just outside the door, we know it’s currently nighttime, but soon enough the door will open onto a glorious sunrise, fields of golden wheat, and those sunflowers that lift their faces to the sky in praise.

The Sower - By Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Rodin sculpted hand touched by human hand

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