… all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace …
Van Gogh judged The Night Café, which he painted for his landlord to pay the rent, “one of the ugliest pictures I have done.” Yet it gave him great joy to paint, and there are few works on which he has written with more conviction.
… let us quote his own strong description:
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 yellow green of the billiard table contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter on which there is a nosegay of rose color. The white coat of the patron, on vigil in a corner of this furnace, turns lemon yellow, or pale luminous green.
Some days later, he wrote: “I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin one’s self, run mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express as it were the powers of darkness in a low drink shop … and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur, all under an appearance of Japanese gaiety and the good nature of Tartarin.”
In his account, van Gogh says nothing of one of the most powerful effects: the absorbing perspective, which draws us headlong past empty chairs and tables into hidden depths behind a distant doorway — an opening like the silhouette of the standing figure. To the impulsive rush of these converging lines he opposes the broad horizontal band of red, full of scattered objects: the lights with their great halos of concentric touches, the green clock at the midnight hour, and the bouquet of flowers, painted with an incredible fury of thick patches against the smooth wall above the crowd of bottles.