Among other artists, Van Gogh fervently studied the Japanese woodblock printers and mimicked much of their work. The colorful design of Hokusai's prints greatly influenced him, and he produced several works directly copying the style. This would have identified him with the Impressionist movement, but as Van Gogh continued to develop his painting approach he took to new methods of painting that would completely distinguish him from the rest.
After a couple years in Paris, the artist moved to Arles in the South of France. There his paintings grew even more unique. This painting shows a popular café in the area which the artist visited, and it is shown here at night.
In this Night Café, we see only a few scattered patrons hunched over their tables in silent thoughtfulness or drunkenness. A waiter dressed in white stands by a billiard table and looks at the viewer. The clock on the wall tells us that it is fifteen minutes past midnight, and the crowds have gone. If Van Gogh the Impressionist is trying to be a flâneur and observe the social night life here, then he is doing a pretty bad job of it. Everyone has left; there are only a few people remaining. Just what is the artist trying to accomplish here?
For starters, we notice the deep red of the café walls and the rich green of the ceiling. The two colors clash and cause the room to appear more stark and vivid. The lamps overhead also seem to add to this bluntness; Van Gogh has actually painted the light coming from them. For all of Claude Monet's efforts to capture sunlight and its effects on an environment, here Van Gogh has simply brushed tiny, circular streaks around the lamps to, in effect, literally paint light. There is no need to walk around it; he paints it stark and bare, vividly visible. And we can see the boards of wood along the floor in the streaks of brushstrokes the artist has painted. The perspective even seems to focus on this aspect of the scene; a good two-thirds of the canvas is devoted to the floor, as if the viewer had his head drooping down. The painting has no center. The closest to a central object would be the pool table, but this is off to the side for one thing and, what's more, is painted crookedly with awkwardly shaped legs. It looks like it could fall forward, out of the painting. In the closest foreground are two empty chairs, faced in opposite directions. Their contrast matches the red and green of the top portion of the painting. The café harbors latent philosophical contradiction. The reds and yellows are warm and inviting, but the greens are lurid and foreign. With its abundance of bottles and absence of people, its billiard table with no players, and its inviting warmth but downward-facing viewer, this café is a working contradiction within itself. And the artist doesn't need to paint it full of people to capture the spirit of the environment itself. We are brought into it all the same, but we are brought in quite alone. The waiter's distant stare at us from across the room further isolates us, as do the placement of the few other people in the room, who all sit far away. We are alone, looking into this room; and although the warm feel of the place and the generous supply of drinks help to invite us in, we look mainly toward the floor and hang in the back. The contradiction of the café turns into the contradiction of the painting itself—and of the painter.