Psychoanalysis in Van Gogh's, "The Night Cafe"

Many things in Vincent van Gogh’s life such as his emotions, life experiences, and other innovators throughout his lifetime, greatly influenced his art pieces.

Being an artist in the Post-Impressionist time period meant competition and proving one’s worth; therefore, Van Gogh did just that in painting “The Night Cafe.” It has become known by researchers that this was influenced by Sigmund Freud and his discovery of Psychoanalysis.As Freud focused on the internal wants or desires of a human- their id, ego, and superego, van Gogh depicted insecure feelings that become present in humans while in social settings.It was Sigmund Freud who paved the way for new artists such as van Gogh to make it known to humans why they feel the way they do in certain situations. Vincent van Gogh was an aspiring artist during the Post-Impressionist time period.

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This was a predominantly French movement between 1886 and 1905.Post-impressionism was the reaction against Impressionists for their naturalistic views of light and color. Leaders such as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, van Gogh, and Georges Seurat were dominant throughout the French movement.These artists, as well as many others, focused on symbolism, vivid color pallets, thick paint application, and geometric shapes.Rather than painting literal landscapes or portraits, they put symbolism and meaning into real-life matter.Since Monet and his most common landscape portraits, this post-impressionist period had been the development of French art through the years.

While impressionists throughout the years of 1870 and 1880 were disciplined in their pieces, post-impressionists were thought to have no limits; therefore, they would paint what they desired no matter the risk, or emotion, that was being depicted (Voorhies). Van Gogh lived in a time with competition between new innovators and new ideas, meaning that every rising man or woman in their specific category, whether it be art, science, or literature, had to prove their talent to the citizens of that nation.There were discoveries in the fields of science, art, literature, and politics; therefore, these new innovators and their discoveries often influenced van Gogh.Sigmund Freud, the founder of Psychoanalysis, contributed to van Gogh’s art as inspiration for “The Night Cafe.”Psychoanalysis was a controversial theory of the unconscious mind.It is Freud’s theory of personality that attempts to provide why we do the things we do.

This theory exposes a human’s unconscious, conscious, and preconscious motives, as well as thought processes- also known as a person’s id, ego, and superego (Broeker 499).Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis and the unconscious motives of humans, proved to be an influence to many artists in the post-impressionist time period such as van Gogh. Van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe,” was painted in response to Sigmund Freud’s discovery of Psychoanalysis.It was painted in September of 1888 in Arles, France as if the viewer was upon entering of the Cafe de la Gare.Van Gogh shows off his vivid use of colors such as bright and bold reds and greens, his thick application of paint, and his use of emotional symbolism.

Van Gogh’s goal for “The Night Cafe” was to depict a place where “you can ruin yourself, go mad, [and] commit crimes.”Through his contrasts of “delicate pink and blood-red and wine-red,” van Gogh achieved his goal of a “hellish furnace” (van Gogh 677).His use of acidic colors leaves the viewer with feelings of fear, insecurity, and being trapped.These three emotions are all present in Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis; therefore, this led researchers to believe that van Gogh was highly influenced by Freud. Van Gogh established a symbolic, emotional depth in “The Night Cafe.

“The painting’s purpose was to put the viewer into the eyes of the artist.As the viewer walks into a cafe alone, they see a man in white staring directly at them; meanwhile, other characters are spread around the cafe looking depressed, melancholy, and miserable.This gives the viewer an automatic feeling of insecurity, as well as the desire to become comfortable- a human’s unconscious id.Van Gogh expresses the darkness in public places through his “hellish furnace” colored cafe.The red walls and green ceilings cause the viewer to unconsciously acquire feelings of loneliness, fear, and coldness.

Van Gogh interprets Freud’s theory by expressing the idea that humans seek pleasure while avoiding punishment.While the man in white is staring at the viewer, we begin the feel anxious and the idea of “ruining oneself” arises.The painting is made up of contrasting colors meant to represent the “terrible passions of humanity” (van Gogh 677).Van Gogh describes the Cafe de la Gare to be a place where the people of France go to get drunk and become miserable; therefore, a setting for voluntarily not dealing with personal obstacles.Freud’s Psychoanalysis theory has a corresponding meaning about the internal conflicts of a person.

The id wants to be pleased, which is conveyed by the glasses of alcohol on the tables.Admittedly, the feeling of being alone and not dealing with one’s problems is common among the visitors of the Cafe de la Gare; however, the ego negotiates between ruining oneself and fitting in with society.Putting these three parts of the human mind into the life of the viewer, the id wants to do what will provide them with instant gratification, the ego wants to fit in, and its superego is yet to be decided, because we are to determine that. Van Gogh took Psychoanalysis and put it into a real-life experience for the people of France.That was the goal of all post-impressionist artists- to put meaningful symbols into real-life matter.Van Gogh took a local, well-known cafe, put the viewer into the painting, and indirectly asked them, “what would you do in this setting?”Would they feel anxious, insecure, or lonely? Would they want to fit in, self destruct, or commit wrongs onto others?This painting reveals the actions presented by a human’s internal, unconscious, actions and thought processes which was made known to van Gogh by Freud.

Vincent van Gogh has become recognized as one of the best painters in history from his use of emotion and feeling in his artwork.Just as there are metaphors in literature, there are metaphors present in paintings; therefore, “The Night Cafe” is a perfect example of this (Rough 362).In relations to the viewer, the painting “generates mood, appeals to the imagination, and even to shock,” says Rough.It is due to the extreme solidarity present in this painting that feelings of anxiety and stress become present in the viewer’s conscious and unconscious mind.Throughout van Gogh’s lifetime, he constantly wrote letters to his brother Theo, Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and many others prevalent in his life.In letter 677 to Theo, van Gogh speaks about his new piece, “The Night Cafe.

“He addresses the vivid colors, lonely citizens, the powers of darkness in a public place, and how he tries to create a furnace with the lamp, ceiling, and colors of the wall.Many critics have analyzed van Gogh’s paintings as well as his letters and have named “The Night Cafe” one of the most famous of van Gogh’s works, as well as one of the most symbolic (Jansen, Luijten, and Bakker, 114).The darkness of the painting expresses van Gogh’s feelings pertaining to his life as well as himself; therefore, he depicts a human’s feelings of loneliness and despair. On July 29,1890, at age thirty-seven, van Gogh shot and killed himself.The last letter he had written was to his brother, Theodore van Gogh, five days before his death.

Sources say that he could not bring himself to write the couple of days prior to his death due to fits and hallucinations (Carvajal). Vincent van Gogh was an astonishing artist during the Post-Impressionist movement that had stood out among the many other artists of this time.Although he lived an extremely short life, his art pieces and letters will continue to influence the artists of today.He will indirectly continue to urge new artists to take new ideas of today, and place them into art; therefore, asking the viewer, “what would you do?”