“I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, which the halo used to be the symbol.”
The following concludes analyses Café Terrace should be considered a Symbolist Last Supper. Part 1 of 2 can be found here.
The Yellow House
Vincent rented the Yellow House in the spring of 1888. Over the summer, he used it solely as a painting studio while renovations and upgrades were completed. Preoccupied with establishing a brotherhood of twelve “artist-apostles,” he anointed Theo the “first apostle-dealer” and Gauguin the “father superior” as he tirelessly schemed for the latter, among others, to join his mission in Arles.
Surprised by a gift from Theo in early September, an additional 300 francs, he finally had the money to furnish his house and move in. He reported buying two beds (one for himself, the other, hopefully for Gauguin), a mirror (for painting self-portraits) and twelve chairs (for the “artist-apostles”?) It remains unclear if he really did purchase twelve. He was, however, at this time, obsessed with the apostolic number, including: painting twelve sunflowers, symbolic of Christ, with plans for twelve more canvasses, and incorrectly believing the pre-Raphaelites were a brotherhood of twelve. He was also enamored with the straw-bottomed chairs, which we’ll examine shortly.
Yellow House finally furnished, Vincent was too anxious to sleep there alone for an entire week. Instead, over several nights, he lugged his easel and gear twenty minutes each way to the Place du Forum where he would craft a consoling masterpiece to keep him company in his new home.
Mystical Last Suppers
Pictorial analysis begins four years earlier, in 1884, when Vincent earned a commission from a retired goldsmith to help him paint, of all things, a Last Supper. We will examine a couple of studies Vincent was tinkering with in late August, 1888, compare and contrast the original sketch, and finally, consider the symbolic elements within the painting.
While Vincent’s lack of success as a living artist is legendary, he was paid in paints, supplies and maybe more to help Antoon Hermans, a wealthy Eindhoven neighbor, decorate his dining room. Vincent rebuked the retiree’s plan to paint a Last Supper, as he explained:
Then I said to him that in my view — since it’s a dining room — it would do considerably more to whet the appetites of those who would have to sit at table there if scenes from the peasant life of the region were to be painted on the walls rather than mystical last suppers. The good fellow didn’t contradict me.
Instead, Vincent created scenes from everyday peasant life. Apparently an iconoclast, is it ridiculous to think he would ever paint a Last Supper? Maybe not when we consider that soon after began ruminations for his first, months-long, career-defining study, The Potato Eaters.
The religious overtones were inspired, as elucidated by van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith:
Through a kaleidoscope of other images. From the monumental laborers of Millet to the idealized rustics of Breton to the bathetic simple folk of Israels… He had also absorbed scores of images of families at table, sharing both food and prayer [… and] Vincent ardently admired Charles de Groux’s The Benediction, a solemn, Last Supper-like panorama of a peasant family giving thanks.
“Of course there’s no question of me doing anything from the Bible.”
Vincent wrote Theo, shortly before beginning Café Terrace, that The Benediction was again on his mind. This is important to understand. Vincent’s Protestantism did not preclude him from painting religious iconography, but rather, necessitated that he find a way to transfigure it for his modern audience. The best argument that Vincent did not paint religious work stems from his own words to Theo, “Of course there’s no question of me doing anything from the Bible.” In the same breath, Vincent had criticized Bernard’s Adoration of the Shepherds and Christ in the Garden of Olives, deriding them as “something artificial — something affected,” expounding:
Because I adore the true, the possible, were I ever capable of spiritual fervor; so I bow before that study, so powerful that it makes you tremble, by père Millet — peasants carrying to the farmhouse a calf born in the fields. Now, my friend — people have felt that from France to America.
Beyond the full scope of this article, Vincent interpreted this Millet as a Nativity scene. The calf, symbolic of the infant Christ, lays in a bed of hay that resembles a golden crown. Art historian Joan Greer explained Vincent’s ideation of successful religious art needed:
The device of light pouring onto a domestic scene as the only signification of religious meaning held strong resonance for him.
Just such light emanates from the top, lefthand corner of Millet’s canvas. The real problem Vincent had with Bernard’s Biblical paintings is that they were not relevant to their modern audience. Vincent held steadfastly to the concept of Aemulatio, explicated by van Uitert:
…as it was formulated in the nineteenth century, ‘doing something different’ from one’s predecessors’ […] was elevated into a cast-iron law as the idea […] that ‘one must be of one’s own time’.
“The implication is that within the ordinary is the sacred; maybe even bourgeois drinkers on a radiant outdoor terrace at night.”
Vincent painted in his own time, with an eye to the future, not the past. He was inspired by his predecessors but refused to merely emulate them. Further, he could not depict angels, magi or shepherds whom he had never seen. Instead, he found the divine in nature and the sacred in everyday people from peasants and sand barge workers to matronly cradle rockers. His form of innovation was simply extracting these “common, everyday” scenes from reality and imbuing them, through his vast knowledge of history’s artwork, with touches from previous masters. The implication is that within the ordinary is the sacred; maybe even bourgeois drinkers on a radiant outdoor terrace at night.
Restaurants in Arles
Because Vincent makes no mention of it, in any existing letter, accurately dating Interior of a Restaurant in Arles has been difficult. Art historian Pierre Leprohon placed it in late August, 1888, due in part to the blossoming sunflowers and this has been generally accepted. It is one of two studies Vincent created of this restaurant; the second, we will examine in a moment. Long supposed to be a view from inside the Hotel Carrel, preeminent van Gogh cataloguer Jan Hulsker argued they were, “undoubtedly the Restaurant Vénissat at 28, Place Lamartine, where Vincent now went for dinner every day.”
Painted while crafting Sunflowers symbolic of Christ, days before Café Terrace, while ruminating about de Groux’s Benediction, Vincent’s palette replicates the hushed tans and golds of Millet’s Newborn Calf. Perhaps this is Vincent’s first attempt at creating a Symbolist Last Supper. Let’s consider some similarities between this painting and a couple of Renaissance Last Suppers. In the center is a serving figure. True, it’s a woman, but still symbolic of one who serves. Most of the diners are stretched along the far side of the table. Three wine carafes feature prominently in the foreground, adding counterbalance to the diners in the background. Admittedly, not much, but it is a start. While Hulsker suggested determining if this or the second canvas came first would be speculation, perhaps we’ll put this question to rest.
What is required to depict a Last Supper? Bare bones: a figure of Christ, typically in the center, twelve diners, one of whom is Judas, haloes are quite prevalent, though not necessary, the same can be said of bread and wine, and finally, an adroitly portrayed moment from the gospels.
Renaissance master Tintoretto included these elements, plus a few angels, and the extra figures of those attending to the suppers. The moment from the Bible is the Eucharist, Christ offering the bread as his body.
Leonardo da Vinci painted no mystical haloes in his realistic depiction.
Arguably the quintessential example in vanishing point perspective, everything leads the eye to the center, to the form of Jesus. Depicted is the moment Christ announced one of them would betray him and the apostles’ reactions; including the shadowed figure of Judas, Simon Peter wielding a knife, and the curious figure of the apostle John, the beloved disciple.
Which brings us back to Vincent and, what will be revealed, his second study of a Symbolist Last Supper.
“But the ‘smoking gun’ sits to the left of the vase where Vincent has seemingly replicated Leonardo’s leaning image of the apostle John.”
The first thing one notices is the stylistic change. This depiction is Cloisonnist. With vibrant yellows, blues and greens, Vincent was again colorizing “Millet” with Delacroix’s palette. Vincent has added bread in the foreground, the symbol of Christ’s body, and placed a new wine bottle in the center; adding emphasis to the serving figure. He has added more diners, although whether there are thirteen is unclear. What is clear, the figure hiding behind, what was once a vase of flowers on the right, now appears to be a palm frond, is his apparent attempt to find a spot for Judas. And here’s where it gets really interesting. The flower arrangement on the left now resembles the top of a poleaxe. It sits at the same position where Simon Peter wields a blade in Leonardo’s version. But the “smoking gun” sits to the left of the vase where Vincent has seemingly replicated Leonardo’s leaning image of the apostle John.
Perhaps Vincent, feeling alienated from these Arlesians, sitting several tables away, dining (and drinking) on his own, witnessed a scene much like this and was inspired by the thought that these devout Catholic townsfolk were sitting down to supper together, much like Christ and his followers had so many years prior. We can be fairly sure he considered these unfinished studies as they are not mentioned in any existing letter. His vision had not been actualized. Finding a way to innovate a Last Supper, while retaining the “guise of observable reality,” however, appears to have been very much on his mind.
Two things strike me about these studies. First, Vincent has enframed a female serving figure with vases of flowers, a motif he would return to with his Berceuse triptych; its religious symbolism apparent. Second, all the straw-bottomed chairs. They also held deep symbolic significance and should be immediately recognizable from Vincent’s Chair and his Bedroom in Arles. You may recall, he’d just reported buying twelve to furnish the Yellow House hours before beginning Café Terrace.
Most art historians agree Vincent made a sketch of Café Terrace before putting paint to canvas. Welsh-Ovcharov’s dissenting opinion that it,“might well have recorded rather than preceded Vincent’s oil version,” stems from her attempt to reconcile Vincent’s report to his sister that the painting was created “on the spot.” A better solution is that he colorized “on the spot” after this original, lined composition.
Sketched during the day, a number of differences from the final tableau are apparent. There are fewer pedestrians and diners, most notably, the shadowed figure exiting or entering the café. Did Vincent find an adroit spot for Judas? More space has been created for the starry sky. The Prussian blue amplifies the chrome yellow of his terrace; achieving, as Vincent wrote, “a mysterious effect.” He has added the triangular boughs of an evergreen tree in the foreground; the Christian symbol of life everlasting. This bears repeating. He added the boughs of a Christmas tree in the foreground. Symbolic of a Last Supper? No. Symbolic of Christ and the Trinity? Most assuredly.
The vanishing point remains the same and next to it stands a serving figure, framed in the lower-left quadrant of window mullions that form a cross or crucifix as though he were bearing it. Vincent borrowed this “Rembrandtesque” symbol from Bernard’s A Woman Washing Herself. He has subtly, but poignantly, and most importantly, symbolically depicted a suffering servant. Incidentally, the cross in the window is one of at least three crucifixes in the painting. We’ll discover two others in a moment.
The central, vanishing point perspective in the final composition is unique in Vincent’s oeuvre. With over 800 paintings, it is the only one with lines of composition that, as in Leonardo da Vinci’s, draw the viewer’s eye to the center. This was accomplished, in part, by adding the foreground evergreen tree and making the lines of the lintel, awning and roof parallel, a trick of perspective that doesn’t exist in the real world.
“Christ has been painted — as I feel it — only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt.”
That summer, Vincent had twice attempted to paint a Christ in the Garden of Olives, but reported scraping off the canvasses for lack of an adequate model and quote, “because here I see real olive trees.” While failing in several attempts to paint an image of Christ, it seems he found a solution by combining Christ at the Column with the similar likeness and colorization of Christ Asleep during the Tempest. He created a countenance, without, as he put it, “heading straight for the Garden of Gethsemane,” and all-the-while, after artists whom, he wrote, “Christ has been painted — as I feel it — only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt.”
A closer look at the terrace reveals Vincent has purposely omitted a second gaslamp. While there are two scrolled, iron prickets attached to the terrace wall on the left, there’s only one, enormous lantern blazing above the central serving figure. It creates a halo-like effect with the exact luminous yellow note that “speaks a symbolic language through color” as in Christ Asleep during the Tempest. The omitted gaslamp further serves to cast the furtive figure in the doorway into a shadow, and echoes Greer’s insight, “The device of light pouring onto a domestic scene as the only signification of religious meaning held strong resonance for him.”
As to the other crucifixes, he’s placed one above the cab-horse, which Vincent considered a symbol of suffering, writing Theo about the Yellow House:
For many reasons I’d like to be able to create a pied-à-terre which, when people were exhausted, could be used to provide a rest in the country for poor Paris cab-horses like yourself and several of our friends, the poor Impressionists.
The third crucifix is emblazoned on the chest of the server like the cross of a rosary. These were not mistakes or happenstance. Vincent thought long and hard about this final composition. Next, we must answer that all-important question, “Are there twelve diners?”
Where’s the twelfth diner? Remember Vincent’s admonition to Bernard. Look closely. The server eclipses all but the hand and forearm of the twelfth diner. Additionally, two diners sit near the very center of the painting – seated on the road and rendered in auras of gold and orange – less realized than even the other figures, perhaps they’re intended to be angels.
“People of quality disguise themselves as tavern-waiters.”
Vincent re-read Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle often. He wrote, while describing Voltaire, another Enlightenment author Vincent adored, “People of quality disguise themselves as tavern-waiters.” Perhaps, Vincent took this notion to the extreme.
Finally, when we consider where this “disembodied” hand and forearm behind the server is pointing – to the shadowed figure in the doorway – we have discovered the final piece of the puzzle: the gospel moment depicted. John 13:30, “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” Of the four gospels, Vincent loved John the best. It is wholly appropriate he would depict this moment. In the throes of creating his Southern Renaissance of “artist-apostles,” he crafted a scene that foretells the arrival of the paraclete; the Holy Spirit that would fulfill Christ’s mission.
Vincent only mentions Café Terrace in three surviving letters. In his most robust description, written to his sister, he explained the painting is something like a scene from French novelist Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. All other interpretations are superfluous.
In addition to the existing letters, nearly 300 have been identified as missing. One such letter was written while Vincent painted Café Terrace. Its identification has been triangulated by scrutinizing references in existing letters. Here’s what we know. Vincent wrote both Bernard and Gauguin, imploring them to paint portraits of one another. He wanted to hang them in the Yellow House to assuage his loneliness. He offered to exchange paintings with each for their trouble. (He would gift Bernard Quay with Sand Barges). Exchanging paintings was part of the esprit de corps Vincent imagined his brotherhood of twelve “artist-apostles” embodied. Digging deeper, Vincent later apologized for his belligerent tone:
Let’s agree that I was angry, let’s agree that it was wrong, but it’s still the case that Gauguin has given birth to a painting, and Bernard as well.
“He would drop hints but preferred viewers discover deeper meanings on their own.”
Beyond our scope, I believe Vincent explained his intentions about Café Terrace in this missing letter, perhaps even sending a preliminary sketch. Primarily, because Gauguin’s next work was not Vincent’s requested portrait, but his first foray into Symbolist art, Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling the Angel, arguably underlining his struggle with fulfilling Vincent’s call-to-arms to move south and lead the Southern Renaissance. But let’s suppose Vincent wasn’t direct. It wouldn’t be out of character. He was entirely subtle in his description of his Madonna and Child triptych. He would drop hints but preferred viewers discover deeper meanings on their own.
With no existing mentions in the letters, it’s impossible to know if Interior(s) of a Restaurant in Arles were painted in late August.
Dating these paintings could easily be solved with a weave report from art historian and all around Renaissance man, Cornell’s C. Richard Johnson, Jr. and his team. We only need to convince the private owners to lend them for a few weeks; risking possible loss, damage, or ownership of a fake. If they prove to be cut from the same swath of canvas (pictured below) it wouldn’t prove this interpretation, but it would lend even more circumstantial evidence that he was likely in the process of conceiving a transfigured Last Supper.
Vincent clearly stated, “There’s no question of me doing anything from the Bible.”
This can be refuted in a number of ways. He painted detailed studies after Delacroix’s Pieta and The Good Samaritan. The Sower and The Harvest are allegorically Biblical. He reported scraping two failed attempts of Christ in the Garden of Olives. It seems Vincent meant painting antiquated scenes from the Bible; scenes that were not of his own time.
How could this discovery have been overlooked by so many for so long?
Earlier art historians, tasked with defining his art, wrote during the First World War. Their general disillusionment seems to have precluded studying Vincent’s religious youth and therefore those motifs in his art. It has only been over the last forty years that these religious themes have been brought to light. Still, Café Terrace had continued to be overlooked until I noticed, researched and wrote about it. Lucky stroke of genius? Who knows. In the words of my mentor, art historian Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette:
For decades, the standard art historical approach to the paintings of Vincent van Gogh have emphasized the artist’s place in an avant-garde Modernist lineage, starting with the Realists of the 1850s to the Fauves in the early twentieth century. Most of these approaches to van Gogh have employed a formalist methodology or used the more dramatic narrative of the artist’s decrepit arc of rise and fall to tragedy. When the content of van Gogh’s work has been examined in relation to his biography, few art historians have explored the impact of religious ideas upon the artist.
Perhaps it took an outsider, with a mind inquisitive enough to become an art history autodidact, to solve Vincent’s sublime puzzle.
Two final thoughts. First, Vincent’s humble sentiment, penned at the nadir of a descent that culminated in his decision to become an artist, says volumes:
Try to understand the last word of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces; there will be God in it. Someone has written or said it in a book, someone in a painting.
And lastly, Vincent’s legacy – the archetypal tortured artist – was wrought by a longing to forge his own path; a course that thrust him through a liminal alienation, but liberated the discovery of his unique creative process and true identity, that of “preacher-artist.” His long-enduring allure is not that he painted imaginary or magical scenes that reside outside of the human experience. Quite the opposite, his paintings provide a connectedness for everyone with eyes who can see, that through our imagination, being human is itself, a mystical experience.