Finally on the café terrace
Looking for the café, we saw much of downtown Arles, found the funkiest rasta pizza place and stopped in for a slice, and finally, when we despaired of ever finding it, we turned a corner, and of course, there it was, more or less like the painting, with a few important differences.
When you see the café today, the outside walls are bright yellow, which is what it looks like in the painting. But in Van Gogh’s time, they weren’t in fact yellow, but a dull sandy colour like the neighbouring building.
The yellow in the painting is Van Gogh’s interpretation of the light cast by a big gas lamp. This was the painting he did with the candles stuck to his felt hat so that he could see his canvas.
His painting around town, especially at night seemed to catch the attention of the locals, and even one of the newspapers, which noted, “Mr. Vincent, an Impressionist painter, works, we are told, in the evening, by the light of the gas lamps, in one of our squares.” Must have been a slow news day.
This has become one of paintings most identified with Van Gogh, and yet, he didn’t write much about it to Theo. However, in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina, where he talked about painting at night, he described it at length.
“I started this letter several days ago, up to here, and I’m picking it up again now. I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree.
Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. 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 straightaway. 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 with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”
So, having finally found it, we needed a drink. A pastis, of course.
We relaxed and enjoyed a sublime late afternoon in an historic square. It was somewhat unreal to sit there in a piece of living history even if it’s completely done up for tourists. This has to be the most photographed bar in Arles. I wonder how many shots we’re in?
Then we noticed that the tables seemed to be exactly like the ones in the painting. I wonder whether they’re the originals, and if they’re not, are they still in production or were they made just for this bar?