Vincent Van Gogh wanted to found a whole new movement of artists. He wanted to begin a kind of artists' collective in Arles along the lines of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood or the Nazarenes, only perhaps not quite so specifically religious or sectarian. He wanted to continue that project to reintegrate individual spirituality that began with the Romantic movements of the early 19th century. In the words of the German Romantic poet, Novalis, he wanted to re-enchant a disenchanted world. Van Gogh sent out dozens of letters to various artists that he admired inviting them to join him in this project in Arles. Only one artist answered his letter and agreed to join him in the south of France, Paul Gauguin. He arrived in Arles and moved in with Van Gogh in October of 1888.
Paul Gauguin was already a rising success as an artist. Van Gogh at this time was an unknown nobody who had yet to sell a single picture. Gauguin was as worldly as Van Gogh was ascetic, and the 2 began to clash almost immediately.
As high minded as he was, Vincent Van Gogh was a deeply flawed man. He could be focused on a project to the point of being oblivious to all around him. He could be self-absorbed and cruelly demanding on members of his family, especially upon his devoted brother Theo who went through much hardship to support Vincent and to promote his pictures. Vincent Van Gogh did not handle disappointments well, especially in matters of love. He never quite recovered from a disappointed passion for a cousin of his in his youth. He had obsessed over her, and she spurned him. He drank heavily and frequented prostitutes, probably to self-medicate as much as anything. By the autumn of 1888, he was beginning to show signs of the mental illness that would be his undoing.
The Night Cafe shown above is a painting made from his own self-destructiveness. It was an establishment on the Rue Lamartine in Arles owned by a Madame Ginoux (Gauguin, another regular of the same establishment, painted her portrait in the bar; his vision of the same bar is far more benign than Van Gogh's). It is like any all night establishment of the time, or at any time. It shows the oil lamps burning late at night while drinkers linger around the tables. The clock reads 12:14 AM. It is a painting full of menace and foreboding. Van Gogh described this establishment as "a place where one could ruin one's self, where one could go mad and commit crimes." The painting is dominated by the flat lurid red of the walls, probably based on the actual garish decor of the bar (that same red appears in Gauguin's portrait of Madame Ginoux). The oil lamps glare ominously. The floor glows with the same bright yellow of the lamps. The pool table is painted with so much anxious energy that it looks like it could spring up and leap out of the picture like a wild animal.
What really gives the picture its anxiety is the odd viewpoint, and original use of perspective. We view the bar as though floating about 6 feet off the floor. The man in the white coat by the pool table appears to be looking up at us. The orthogonal lines of the perspective of the room lead to a vanishing point through the parted curtain in the door in the back, apparently into another room as menacing, or worse, than this one. Traditionally, perspective is used to focus our attention and to create a kind of dramatic climax to a picture. Here, it ends inconclusively. The focus is simply the back wall of the bar and the kitchen door. There is also a kind of conflict between the insistent 3 dimensionality of the perspective, and the flat unshaded red of the walls that brings us right back to the surface of the painting. The feeling we get is one of entrapment and claustrophobia.
This ordinary late night bar becomes hellish, seen through Van Gogh's anxieties about his disintegrating self. Van Gogh remakes the world in terms of his anxieties, something that later expressionist artists would also do, but arguably less successfully.