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Wednesday, April 13, 2016


An interesting curiosity surrounds a 19th century café in Arles, France because it appeared in oil paintings by two icons of European art.

Both Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin depicted the interior of Café de la Gare (then at 30 Place Lamartine) in the French town near the river Rhone.  Sadly, the café exists no more.

“Le Café de Nuit” is considered a masterpiece by latter day art critics. Dutch artist Van Gogh and was painted in September 1888.  Its title is inscribed beneath his signature.  In Van Gogh’s work the man standing is café owner Joseph Ginoux.  Reportedly, the artist painted the pictures in partial payment for his bar tabs.

Again, reportedly the owner wanted to show off his newly installed gas ceiling lamps. In wildly contrasting, vivid colours, the ceiling is green, the upper walls red, the glowing, gas ceiling lamps and floor largely yellow. The paint is applied thickly, with many of the lines of the room leading toward the door in the back. The perspective looks downward.

The rest of the painting shows the interior of the cafe, with a half-curtained doorway in the center background leading, presumably, to more private quarters. Five customers depicted in the scene have been described as "three drunks and derelicts.”

Another art writer says "The cafe was an all-night haunt of local down-and-outs and prostitutes, who are depicted slouched at tables and drinking together at the far end of the room."

Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo describes his work as it was in progress:  “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. 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. 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...”

Present location: Yale University.
The same café in Arles was the background for a portrait of Madame Marie Ginoux, wife of the owner.  It was painted in November, 1888 after Van Gogh urged his friend and fellow painter to come to Provence to assist him in forming an artist’s colony there.  But by the end of the year Van Gogh’s erratic behavior (self ear slashing) Gauguin left Arles and Van Gogh to his devils.  The two friends never saw each other again.

Because the figures in both paintings are similar that fact has led many to believe Gauguin was assisting Van Gogh to pay off debts at the café.  Other art scholars disagree pointing to letters from Van Gogh to his brother that Gauguin was painting images that he had already painted.  Van Gogh seemed miffed. 

Gauguin reportedly reworked “Night Café at Arles” the piece described here but in the end the characters are the same as in Van Gogh’s earlier work.

Present location: Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts


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