Arles: Van Gogh’s CafeTerrace at Night – then and now

Ever wanted to put yourself in the picture? It was evening and the sky was precisely the deep Prussian Blue that Van Gogh portrayed in his painting of “the Café Terrace at Night”. The lights under the awning reflected warmly in the wine glasses as we toasted our meal and our time in Province. It was Autumn in Arles, and the smell of lavender mingled with the delicious food smells. It hadn’t changed much since Vincent (yes we’re on first name terms now) painted the café at around the same time of year in 1888.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

In those days, the café terrace was lit by gas lamps beneath the awning, as the evening brought out the vibrant stars. Van Gogh did the painting as a companion piece to his Night Café in which he depicted the interior of this same cafe.

Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his sister Willemien Van Gogh on 14 September 1888:

“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”

– [Source:  www.vangoghletters.org].

There were other cafés nearby on the plaza that once formed part of the Roman Forum here, and over the ten days we stayed there, we sampled most of them. Here, the steak was tasty and the Beaujolais formed the perfect accompaniment, along with the traditional baguette. A cool wind blew, but we didn’t mind. The occasional scooter clattered past on the cobble stones  – damp after a recent shower – leaving an oily smoke in its wake. It is a real place. Yet somehow the damp ground added vibrancy to the colours, rendering the scene more painterly. I can see why he chose this town, this part of the south of France. It is the light.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

[source: photographed by me from a print erected at the spot from which he painted the cafe.]

The cafe itself – as you can see – is still there on the Place du Forum in Arles, just down the road from the Roman Amphitheatre which is still in use today for concerts and bull fights. Sharon and I had a wonderful dinner there – very French – with a nice carafe of wine. It was a magic evening 🙂

As for the actual painting? You can find Café Terrace at Night on display at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.

Roman baths (Thermae) in Arles

Therme de Constantine - Roman baths, Arles

Therme de Constantine – Roman baths, Arles

The extensive remains of the  Roman Baths (thermae) in Arles in the south of France – built during the 4th Century AD under Emperor Constantine – give an insight into how the Romanised Gauls lived – taking on many aspects of Roman culture. Regular bathing was was practiced across all classes. While the wealthy Romans had small bath houses built into their mansions, the public ones saw people socialising, exercising and maintaining a habit of cleanliness.

People went to bathe and socialise before their evening meal – much as we might socialise at a gym or bar after work. The entrance was free or cheap – and depending on the time, men and women had separate bathing times or they bathed together depending on the fashion of the day. Of course some baths had a reputation for illicit behaviour or bacteria infested waters – Seneca, who lived in an apartment over a bath house railed against the noise, smell and behaviour of the clientelle. But they were clearly not all like that or they would not have become such a central part of Roman life.

The water for the Thermae at Arles came from the Alpilles mountain chain – a low mountain range in Provence about 20km south of Avignon, and was brought to the town via an aqueduct. The water was then fed into a tank which supplied the town through lead pipes.

Roman lead pipes - Arles

Roman lead pipes – Arles

The building is divided into several sections, with a central courtyard for people to relax or take exercise – perhaps like a modern gym. There were change rooms with closet space for your clothes (apodyterium). Then you could alternate between a hot room (caldarium), a warm room (tepidarium) and a cold bath (frigidarium). Romans believed you would gain health and cleanliness from progressing from one to the other.

The hot room was heated by an under-floor heating system (hypocaust) – the remains of which can be seen today.

Hypocaust - Arles

Hypocaust – Arles

This was a bit like a sauna, and the idea was to sweat out the impurities and be scraped down with a curved metal strap called a strigil. You would then cool off in the frigidarium to close the pores, and the tepidarium would be a relaxing point, perhaps for a massage and the application of scented oils.

Roman Baths Arles

Roman Baths Arles

Once clean it was time to head home to eat.

Today, we also find it important to look after the body and the mind. Cleanliness is  said, after all, to be next to godliness. It is also associated with good health and living a good and civilised life. It certainly feels that way to share a moment with the ancient Romans in Arles, before heading around the corner for a pasta and wine (avec baguette naturellement). They were not unlike ourselves all those years ago…

The Roman baths at Arles are on the UNESCO Word Heritage list. They are open daily. A €9 ticket allows entry to this site plus four other Arles sites.
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Van Gogh’s bridge to Japan

Why are bridges so fascinating?

Bridges hold a special place in every culture. They are a means to cross  from one place to another; over a hazard, a dangerous river or chasm. So bridges are both a connection and a marker for a division. When you step off the land onto a bridge you are in a space between where you have been and where you are going. Metaphorically, bridges can cross the gulf between cultures and across history.

Many cities have iconic bridges: Venice has the Bridge of Sighs, London has Tower Bridge, San Francisco has the Golden Gate, Sydney has the Harbour Bridge and Paris has Pont Neuf.

Van Gogh’s Pont Langlois

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places.
In reality, he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

Van Gogh's Pont de Langlois [wikipedia - Kröller Müller]

Van Gogh’s Pont de Langlois [wikipedia – Kröller Müller]

Vincent van Gogh did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal. It was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Finding the Langlois Bridge

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge. That, in turn, was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944. They destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was one of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find. You can find it here [Google maps link].

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake. But since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, I think it is close enough. I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure. You can see how he faithfully reproduced the chains, support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

This version is in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Langlois Bridge

Langlois Bridge [source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The link with Tokyo

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy. High quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists. Others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas or high class escorts. Around 1857, Hiroshige – a Japanese artist of the Edo period – published a book in Japan called One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. This was soon after the great 1855 earthquake that had destroyed many key buildings in what is today called Tokyo. It was a record of the rebuilding, and of the surviving structures. At the time, it was the largest such collection. 

Hiroshige's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake

Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake [photo – Jerry Everard]

The post-impressionists were inspired to look differently at the world through the different perspective and flat use of colour in these images. Van Gogh amassed a large collection of Japanese woodblock prints. One such print was of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of what we now call Tokyo. Hiroshige’s depiction of the bridge in a sudden storm, with its elegant lines and unusual foreshortening, inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh copy in oil of Hiroshige's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake. [photo-Jerry Everard]

Van Gogh copy in oil of Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake. [photo-Jerry Everard]

Edo Bridge

We found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. Here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo:

Replica Edo-Tokyo bridge at the Edo-Tokyo museum, Tokyo. [photo - Jerry Everard]

Replica Edo-Tokyo bridge at the Edo-Tokyo museum, Tokyo. [photo – Jerry Everard]

From a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below…

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