Cafe Terrace at Night by Van Gogh: Analysis & Meaning of the Painting

BY K Shabi PUBLISHED 07 Jun 2022

Painted in 1888, Café Terrace at Night is one of the most famous works of art by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. At first glance, the oil painting seems simple, but there may be a secret meaning painted into the seemingly ordinary looking street café scene. What is the true meaning of Café Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh? Read a detailed interpretation and analysis explaining the symbols hidden in Vincent Van Gogh's famous cafe painting.

Cafe Terrace at Night by Van Gogh explained: Painting Meaning, Analysis & Interpretation
Vincent Van Gogh - Café Terrace at Night (1888)

Café Terrace at Night: Description of Van Gogh's First Starry Night Painting

Café Terrace at Night is one of the most reproduced works of art of all time, but many people don't know that it is actually the first part in a trilogy of starry night paintings Van Gogh painted during this period. Completed in September 1888, Café Terrace at Night was painted the same month as Starry Night over the Rhone, the second painting in his trilogy. Van Gogh revisited the starry night subject once more almost a year later in June 1889 with Starry Night, his famous masterpiece. Clearly, as an artist Van Gogh was deeply fascinated by the idea of a starry night sky.

"The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day." Vincent Van Gogh

Analysis of Café Terrace at Night Painting by Vincent Van Gogh

What was it about a starry night sky that so enthralled Vincent Van Gogh? As his personal letters reveal, Van Gogh was captivated by the colors of the night, which he believed were richer and "more alive" than the day. While art critics have pointed out astrological inaccuracies in the sky of Starry Night Over the Rhone, the stars that make up the Great Bear (Ursa Major), his favorite constellation, are positioned correctly in Café Terrace at Night. Van Gogh wanted to capture the colors of a night sky accurately too. In Café Terrace at Night, Van Gogh challenged himself to paint "a night painting without black." Instead of painting a "conventional black night," he pushed himself artistically to use as many colors and shades as possible to capture the full nuance of a real night sky. Van Gogh is famous for painting en plein air, outdoors with his easel and palette, perhaps with candles tucked in his hat to light his canvas.

"I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straight away. It's quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can't make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it's the only way of getting away from the conventional black night." Vincent Van Gogh, 14 September 1888

But there is much more to Café Terrace at Night than just a starry night sky. As in Starry Night Over the Rhone, the starry night is only one part of a larger landscape. In both paintings, the bright natural light of the stars almost compete with the artificial light glowing up from the city of Arles, France below. To Van Gogh, the double illumination and contrast between the heavenly and the manmade was beautiful and harmonious. "I believe that an abundance of gaslight, yellow and orange, intensifies blue," he wrote.

Café Terrace at Night: Real Location of the Street Café on the Place du Forum

And what about the café scene? The painting is also known as The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. When first exhibited in 1891, it was originally called Coffeehouse in the Evening. There are more people featured in Café Terrace at Night than in any other Van Gogh painting. On a simple level, the painting demonstrates Van Gogh's love for the famous café culture of France and especially Paris, where everyday people from all walks of life could gather together, talk and perhaps even share thoughts and ideas. Today, you can still visit and have a cup of coffee at the real location of the original yellow street café — now called Café La Nuit — on the Place du Forum in Arles, France.

Real Location Yellow Street Cafe Terrace Van Gogh Painting
Real Location of Van Gogh Street Cafe in Arles

Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night Painting: Street Scene & Cafe Culture

For Van Gogh, the café symbolized more than just a place to socialize. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh connected the people gathering in the café under the starry sky above with his own "tremendous need" for what he reluctantly called "religion." For Van Gogh, the idea of a "lively" group of friends hanging out was basically as good as life gets — a kind of heaven on earth for the often lonely artist who yearned for collaboration and camaraderie. In his personal letters, Van Gogh hoped to one day make his dream a reality, and planned to form an artist commune in the south of France.

"That doesn't stop me from having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion — so I go outside at night to paint the stars, and I always dream a painting like that, with a group of lively figures of the pals." Vincent Van Gogh, 29 September 1888

Café Terrace at Night Painting Analysis & Religious Symbolism

Some art history scholars believe that Christianity and religious art play an even more important role in understanding the true meaning of Van Gogh's famous café painting. Does Café Terrace at Night contain secret references to The Last Supper (1498) by Leonardo da Vinci? Though the interpretation may seem far-fetched at first, there are several key connections curiously linking Van Gogh's humble café scene and Da Vinci's hallowed Renaissance painting.

Painting Analysis Symbolism & Interpretation The Last Supper Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci - The Last Supper (1498)

Hidden Symbols in Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night Painting

Da Vinci's The Last Supper takes place at a crowded dinner table, and Café Terrace at Night similarly is set in a café, where people gather together to eat and drink. While Jesus Christ is clearly the central figure of the Da Vinci painting, the man standing in the center of Café Terrace at Night shares some striking similarities with many famous depictions of Jesus. Perhaps a waiter employed there, the man is dressed in what looks like a white robe and has longer brown hair and a beard. Looking down, he stands amidst a group of twelve seated café-goers, who may be symbolic of the twelve apostles. A shadowy, somewhat ominous figure lurks in the doorway and may represent the scheming Biblical traitor, Judas Iscariot, who is seen whispering conspiratorially in Da Vinci's painting. A simple cross motif, perhaps a symbol of the crucifix, appears repeatedly throughout the composition of the painting.

The Secret Meaning of Café Terrace at Night Painting by Van Gogh Explained

What is the hidden secret meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's painting Café Terrace at Night? Perhaps Van Gogh really did intend to use his famous café painting to reimagine Da Vinci's The Last Supper. If so, he managed to subtly connect the lofty Renaissance painting with the quaint Parisian café culture and lifestyle of his time. By recasting the Biblical Messiah as an ordinary and anonymous waiter at an outdoor street café, in Café Terrace at Night Van Gogh suggests that it is possible to glimpse elements of divine beauty even in everyday moments. This sentiment is evident not just in this painting, but in fact echoes through his whole body of art. For Van Gogh, the mundane and the ordinary were nothing less than awe-inspiring, but especially at night under a starry sky.

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