I must have been eight or nine years old when my older brother brought home a small Skira book on Van Gogh. I was fascinated by the book and remembered flipping through it over and over. Someone had given me an oil painting set for Christmas and for some reason I decided to copy the portrait of Eugene Bok. I canʼt remember why I chose that painting over all the other paintings in the book, but if I were to guess it would probably be because of the starry night sky behind the head. It certainly isnʼt my favorite Van Gogh and I canʼt say that Iʼve thought about it much over the years except to remember finishing it and that it was my first oil painting. A year or two later I saw the Movie Lust for Life staring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. The movie was directed by Vincent Minnelli and the story adapted from the book by Irving Stone. This was my introduction into the life of Van Gogh. The movie was filmed in vivid color and Kirk Douglas resembled Van Gogh and did a convincing job of portraying a tortured artist. I remember him sticking his bandaged head out the second floor window of the yellow house and screaming hysterically at the people below who were tormenting him.
It must have been in an art history class where I saw the poolroom painting by Van Gogh, The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine, for the first time. Everything about it grabbed me–the color; blocks of yellow, red and green, the swirling lights, the billiard table with a stick and three balls laying on the cloth, the clock over the doorway to the back room set at just passed midnight, the large mirror on the wall and the customers at the tables, some passed out in folded arms. But most of all it was the man in the white suit standing by the billiard table under the phosphorescent lights, staring straight ahead and seeming totally at ease in his world, a saint or sinner with his thumbs casually hooked in his front pockets. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the cafe in a letter dated August 6th 1888:
“Today I am probably going to start on the interior of the cafe where I stay, by gas- lighting, in the evening. It is what they call here a ʻcafe de nuitʼ (they are fairly common here), staying open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging or are too tight to be taken in”.
A month later he wrote to Theo reporting that he had stayed up for three nights running, sleeping only during the day to paint the night cafe.
“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 citron yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate 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 pink nosegay. The white coat of the landlord, awake in the corner of that furnace, turns citron yellow, or pale luminous green. I am making a drawing of it with tones in watercolor to send to you tomorrow to give you some idea of it.”
I spent a lot of time in corner hangouts and poolrooms when I was a kid in South Philadelphia, so the painting really hit home. I later graduated to the larger and older poolrooms, the classy and cavernous places where the great shooters gathered to hustle their game. I knew all the nighttime hangouts, the “after hours” clubs and “bust out” joints, the all-night diners, all-night movie houses, the storefront speakeasies, and the institutions like “Horn and Hardartʼs” and “Lintonʼs”. These places were filled with lonely people, drunks and dreamers, junkies, perverts, insomniacs, somnambulists’, hustlers, hookers, and lunatics. Van Gogh also said:
“I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.”
The biggest surprise at Yale was discovering that Van Goghʼs The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine was part of the permanent collection in the Yale Museum right across the street from the Art and Architecture building. I visited often but somehow could not get used to how small it was compared to the size of a projected slide in a lecture hall. I was also kind of shocked by how roughly it was painted, as if he was carving into space with color. I remember Al Held saying that Van Goghʼs paintings never quite settled in on the walls of museums and that there was a strange awkwardness about the way they related to the other works around them. He said that Gauguinʼs work, as great as it was, looked much more comfortable in a museum setting.
In 1984 I saw the large retrospective at the Met of Van Goghʼs work at Arles. The Night Cafe was hanging right next to a doorway so I could see it from several rooms away. At that time I began getting tickets for these blockbuster shows for late in the afternoon. I would speed through the show then backtrack to the first room and wait for the guards to begin clearing the room. I would linger as long as possible and in this way was able to see all the paintings pretty much alone. I did the same thing in every room. I remember that afternoon mostly because of The Night Cafe. I had spent over two years in New Haven and probably looked at that painting a hundred times or more, but I never really saw it the way I saw it that afternoon when I stood on my toes a few rooms away to look over the heads of the crowd. The painting lit up like a hallucination with the light swirling so intensely that I thought I would begin to levitate from the excitement running through my whole body. I donʼt think any other painting ever affected me the same way.
I ran into William Bailey recently and we were talking about the Yale Museum and inevitably the subject of The Night Cafe came up. He told me about his battle with the museum over the way they had reframed the painting and how the modern black frame made it look like a slide. Eventually, after enough people complained, they gave in and reframed it with the original frame.
“How did he do it?” Bill asked, “How did he paint all those great paintings in such a short time? He seemed genuinely perplexed.
“It was really just a few years,” I added. “The first seven or so were warm ups.”
“It doesn’t seem possible,” Bill said. I had nothing to add because people have been asking that same question for more than a century.