Saturday, February 24, 2007

Night Cafe at Arles (1888)

In the autumn of 1888 Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch art dealer, invited Gauguin to stay with his brother Vincent in Arles, a small town in the south of France.

Gauguin was suspicious of the invitation. Theo was his Paris agent. Surely this was just a means of obtaining exclusive rights over his own paintings? Gauguin was on a high after winning the respect and admiration of his fellow artists at Ponte-Aven. He was sure that his paintings would now sell. However, material success continued to elude him and he had no other choice but to accept Theo's offer of support.

Gauguin expected to dominate Van Gogh, but the two artists had already established their own distinct styles. Van Gogh's work expressed his own uninhibited emotion. He revealed everything about himself on canvass, particularly the negative aspects of his own character.

By contrast, Gauguin's search for reality did not involve any personal truths. His art attempted to provide an insight into other people's characters through symbolic representation.

In "Night Cafe at Arles", Gauguin paints a subject already attempted by Van Gogh. However, whereas Van Gogh's picture mirrors his own desperate isolation by concentrating on lonely drinkers with apparently nowhere else to go, Gauguin is disdainful of such painful soul-searching and approaches the subject with optimism.

The cafe owner, Madame Ginoux, prosperous and matronly, dominates the foreground while the late night drinkers, idling their time away, are relegated to the background. Once again Gauguin skillfully divides his canvass between two contrasting scenes, employing harshly defined blocks of colour in order to create a symbolic picture in preference to a realistic image.

Image source: The Yorck Collection

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