The Night Cafe, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh painted The Night Café (original French title: Le Café de nuit) in Arles in September 1888

The painting was executed on industrial primed canvas of size 30 (French standard). It depicts the interior of the cafe, with a half-curtained doorway in the center background leading, presumably, to more private quarters. Five customers sit at tables along the walls to the left and right, and a waiter in a light coat, to one side of a billiard table near the center of the room, stands facing the viewer.

The five customers depicted in the scene have been described as "three drunks and derelicts in a large public room [...] huddled down in sleep or stupor."One scholar wrote, "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."

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 somewhat downward toward the floor.

In a jocular passage of a letter Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, the artist said Ginoux had taken so much of his money that he'd told the cafe owner it was time to take his revenge by painting the place.

In August 1888 the artist told his brother in a letter:

Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the cafe where I have a room, by gas light, in the evening. It is what they call here a cafe de nuit (they are fairly frequent here), staying open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.”

Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, showing outdoor tables, a street scene and the night sky, was painted in Arles at about the same time. It depicts a different cafe, a larger establishment on the Place du Forum.

Van Gogh wrote many letters to his brother Theo van Gogh, and often included details of his latest work. The artist wrote his brother more than once about The Night Café. In one of the letters he describes this painting:

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.”

The next day (September 9), he wrote Theo:

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.”

The violent exaggeration of the colours and the thick texture of the paint made the picture "one of the ugliest pictures I have done", Van Gogh wrote at one point. He also called it "the equivalent though different, of The Potato Eaters", which it resembles somewhat in its use of lamplight and concerns for the condition of people in need.

The work has been called one of Van Gogh's masterpieces and one of his most famous.

Unlike typical Impressionist works, the painter does not project a neutral stance towards the world or an attitude of enjoyment of the beauty of nature or of the moment. The painting is an instance of Van Gogh's use of what he called "suggestive colour" or, as he would soon term it, "arbitrary colour" in which the artist infused his works with his emotions, typical of what was later called Expressionism.

The red and green of the walls and ceiling are an "oppressive combination", and the lamps are "sinister features" with orange-and-green halos, according to Nathaniel Harris. "The top half of the canvas creates its basic mood, as any viewer can verify by looking at it with one or the other half of the reproduction covered up; the bottom half supplies the 'facts.'" The thick paint adds a surreal touch of waviness to the table tops, billiard table and floor. The viewer is left with a feeling of seediness and despair, Harris wrote. "The scene might easily be banal and dispiriting; instead, it is dispiriting but also terrible."

The red and green of the walls and ceiling are an "oppressive combination", and the lamps are "sinister features" with orange-and-green halos, according to Nathaniel Harris. "The top half of the canvas creates its basic mood, as any viewer can verify by looking at it with one or the other half of the reproduction covered up; the bottom half supplies the 'facts.'" The thick paint adds a surreal touch of waviness to the table tops, billiard table and floor. The viewer is left with a feeling of seediness and despair, Harris wrote. "The scene might easily be banal and dispiriting; instead, it is dispiriting but also terrible."

The perspective of the scene is one of its most powerful effects, according to various critics. Schapiro described the painting's "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." Lant described it as a "shocking perspectival rush, which draws us, by the converging diagonals of floorboards and billiard table, towards the mysterious, courtained doorway beyond." Harris wrote that the perspective "pitches the viewer forward into the room, towards the half-curtained private quarters, and also creates a sense of vertigo and distorted vision, familiar from nightmares." Schapiro also noted, "To the impulsive rush of these converging lines he opposes the broad horizontal band of red, full of scattered objects [...]"