Continuing the entry from Wednesday...read the first part here.
The Oxford students took coffee to London as well, where coffeehouses gained widespread popularity as Penny Universities because all kinds of subjects were discussed by men from all walks of life. No women allowed in though. The ladies soon set up a petition – complaining that coffee decreased their men’s virility. Men fired back a vigorous and somewhat explicit rejoinder.
A Turkish ambassador to the French court took coffee to France, where they developed a serious passion for it. The Dutch broke the Muslim monopoly on coffee, and ever the canny businessmen, went on to greatly influence the European coffee trade. The spoils of war brought a sack of coffee beans to Vienna in the 1680’s. And so the craving for coffee spread through the cities in Europe.
Incidentally, tea came to Europe at about the same time and was sold through the coffee houses but did not become popular till the 18th century, when Britain established tea plantations in the colonies. The British thrust on tea eroded the coffee market in Arabia, as Arabs became tea drinkers. Even today, the erstwhile British colonies are the largest consumers of tea. Continental Europe and Americas however remain coffee strongholds.
Fun fact - in 1668, coffee overtook beer as a breakfast drink in New York. The Dutch had been eclipsed by the British in NYC by then, but remained paramount in the world trade. And across the pond, the Dutch masters were well into the Dutch Golden Age. In 1668, the same year when New Yorkers found coffee goes better with their breakfast bacon, Jan Steen painted his Twelfth Night Feast.
In the 17th century, the sky in night scenes, or Nocturnes, was painted differently – darker, drabber, certainly more static. It was much darker outdoors in Europe during the 17th century than in Van Gogh’s time. Paris, for instance, got the first gas lit street in 1820’s, London a few years earlier. Prior to that, city streets were mostly unlit, though there were regulations about mandatory lights in streetside windows of surrounding houses. Citizens carried their own lights when moving around in the dark.
The introduction of street lighting in the 19th century had much to do with the colour palette we see in Van Gogh’s nocturnes. However, Van Gogh’s early paintings were darker and his use of colour was less bold. It was only after Paris his work grew brighter as he came into contact with older artists like Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin. Japanese woodcuts also influenced Van Gogh’s palette and his paintings got a lighter, more modern vibe. And of course, that Van Gogh was born in the century when the collapsible tube was invented, as were newer, synthetic pigments, had an overarching impact on his palette and his open air painting technique, which he employed in capturing the cafe at Place du Forum at Arles.
Café Terrace by Night (1888) was one of a trilogy of nocturnes painted by Van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone (1888) and Starry Night (1889) being the other two. Starry Night was acquired by MoMA in 1921 and hangs there still, while SNotR is now located at Musee d’Orsay. CTbN itself is displayed at the Kroller-Muller Museum some 80 odd kms from Amsterdam. According to some sources, CTbN is among the ten most popular of his paintings/reproductions. I can easily believe that – one of its reprints hung in my rooms in the 90s when I first came to Bahrain.
It is a luminous painting, remarkably vivid as all his later paintings are, and it’s reminiscent of some intriguing religious imagery. There is a faint cross behind the standing figure of the long haired man, and it is surrounded by 11 seated people, with one shadowy figure exiting through the doorway in the left - a possible Judas to a white robed Jesus standing under an impending cross? Some scholars think it is a nod to Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Though Van Gogh himself never mentioned any religious takes when he wrote about the CTbN to his sister. On the other hand, he wrote, at about the same time to his brother Theo - that he "had a tremendous need for religion." Van Gogh had wanted to be a clergyman once, so it is not too far fetched to imagine a riff on the Last Supper.
Van Gogh was also a regular at cafés – he lived in them, he ate and drank in them, he painted them, he exhibited his paintings in them, he maintained close friendships with some café owners even after he left the city in which they were located. He painted at least one still life of a coffee pot, two café tables, and one portrait of a man drinking coffee that I am aware of. After he cut off his ear in Arles, the physician who treated Van Gogh, Dr Felix Rey, thought that Vincent had epilepsy brought on by too much alcohol and coffee and too little food. That he drank prodigious amounts of absinthe and coffee is beyond any doubt. He also nibbled on paints and drank turpentine, which could not have done his health much good.
There are theories about how absinthe affects the perception of yellow in the vision and whether Van Gogh’s fluorescent palette came about from his drinking. He was a tortured, lonely soul, that too is beyond doubt. His paintings are a celebration of colour, nature and living, strangely juxtaposed with his own despair, loneliness, mental health issues and ultimate suicide. How could someone who was so unhappy pour out such a happy mix of colours? Spark such a feel good vibe in his viewers? The questions remain even 130 years after his death.
I could have told you instead about my own teeny-tiny Van Gogh chronology – read his biography as a teenager, tracked him down at the museum in Amsterdam and then at Musée d’Orsay, hung his sunflowers on my walls. Or about my fanhood of his letters, now available online, almost the entire correspondence. How the Starry Night eluded me by just a few meagre weeks. But never mind, that's not one hundredth as fascinating.