Postcard from Arles: an evening in Arles

Postcard from Arles: an evening in Arles with van Gogh
23rd September 2007 Jane Tomlinson

Vincent’s Cafe Terrace at Night today

I wanted to eat at La Cafe La Nuit, on the Place du Forum in Arles which Vincent van Gogh immortalised in his fabulous painting ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’ in 1888:

So we drove into Arles which was alive with excitement as it was the first of a three-day public bull-torturing and bull-killing spree, known round here as a ‘corrida’ or a ‘feria’, in the Roman arena.

Town centre roads were closed and thousands of people were out and about on the streets with 12,000 seated in the arena. Though the thought of bullfighting sickens me to the core, as we walked past the arena, the sound of the crowd cheering and clapping from within at the bloody spectacle they were witnessing was thrilling, a real echo from the past and surely precisely the same as when Vincent van Gogh went to a bullfight with Gauguin in autumn 1888, and the same as when the Romans themselves held similar events here 2,000 years ago. Nevertheless, how people can consider themselves civilised when tolerates the torture and killing animals for so-called sport is beyond me.

We finally reached the Place du Forum where La Cafe la Nuit still is, and it was heaving with people.

We were early for dinner by French standards and as thousands were still having fun watching bulls die, we easily got a table.

The food was exceptionally average, the vegetarian options almost non-existent and it was hideously overpriced, but that wasn’t the point.

To sit on the terrace, watching people come and go as the sun set and the evening fell was great. The terrace glowed yellow, just like in Vincent’s painting.

Starry night over the Rhone

After dinner we returned to the car and drove round the corner to Place Lamartine where Vincent’s Yellow House stood until 1944, and parked there, by the river Rhone, just as the last of the light was fading in the west. We found the place where Vincent set up his easel on the riverbank to paint his Starry Night over the Rhone:

…to see for ourselves our very own tarry Night over the Rhone. I only saw three stars but the streetlights reflected in the river and the silhouette of Arles’ riverside buildings and the great dark curve of the river was precisely the same as Vincent saw it. Moth got out the tripod and took some photos.

I got out my sketchbook and drew. It was magic and truly fascinating to have a crack at a scene which Vincent would have instantly recognised.