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"The painting is one of the ugliest I've done."
This is what Vincent Van Gogh told his brother in a letter
referencing this painting,
called "Night Café"
and, at first glance,
you can see what he meant.
This is a jarring image,
even for Van Gogh.
Especially when you compare it to his other famous scene of a cafe in Arles.
Cafe Terrace at Night
Here Van Gogh captures that romantic sense of European cafes on Summer evenings,
where friends gather to talk and laugh.
The blue starry sky compliments the pool of orange and yellow gas light under the terrace,
which spills out over the cobble stones tinged with violet and pink.
Compare to that, Night Cafe is a painting of anxiety.
If the exterior is the dream of French nightlife,
the interior is the nightmare.
If the exterior is a place to talk and laugh,
The interior depicts the cafe as a place where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes.
As Vincent wrote in another letter to his brother.
From these letters we understand that the ugly quizy quality of this painting was intentional.
In the same way that he used color to capture his emotional response to natural beauty,
here Van Gogh uses color to convey the uneasiness of a low-class bar room after midnight.
So, how did Van Gogh achieve this effect?
And how can, a quote unquote, "ugly painting" also be a masterpiece?
And to answer these questions, maybe, the first place we should look is back in those letters.
In reference to Night Cafe Van Gogh writes here,
"I`ve tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green".
Everywhere it`s a battle and an antithesis of the most different greens and reds."
Van Gogh was an avid student of color.
Specifically Charles Blanc`s analysis of Michel Chevreul color theory
and Eugène Delacroix`s paintings.
Here Van Gogh learned of the concept of simultaneous contrast, which says that
He also learned of optical mixing
which favorite placing solid colors next to each other on the canvas
instead of actually mixing the pigments together
In order to get more vibrant colors and color relationships.
And the basic insight is that every color in the painting and in the real world
is influenced by the colors around it.
The impressionists and the post-impressionists
used this relativety to push the effects of color further than ever before.
And, maybe, none more powerfully than Van Gogh.
So, when he talks about a battle or an antithesis between greens and reds in Night Cafe,
this is what he means
Green and red are complimentary colors
and exert a force on each other
just like blue and orange.
But where`s blue and orange have a pleasing quality;
there`s something punishing about green and red.
The fact that was noted by another popular color theorist at the time — Ogden Rood.
Van Gogh was aware of this too;
just a few months prior he experimented with a similar color palette
in his portrait of a Zouave soldier.
Commenting to his brother,