Van Gogh ignored the Roman ruins for which Arles is internationally renowned, and did not even mention them in his letters to Theo. What he did feel warranted writing about-and painting-was the Provencal countryside of the "Midi" and his beloved cafes. Compared with chic Paris, cafe life in Arles offered far worse company, but in many ways that was precisely the point. Considering himself to be an isolated figure operating on the margins of society, Van Gogh felt naturally attracted to cafes for their seedy, underground reputation. With alcoholics, prostitutes, and the homeless numbering among their "socially excluded" low-life denizens, Van Gogh, the poor struggling artist, felt quite at home.
"The Night Cafe" was just such a site of urban alienation. By choosing to frequent and represent this kind of scene, Van Gogh was curiously returning to "The Potato Eaters" (1885) territory. Certainly neither painting has the light, detached air that characterized his more Impressionist works of the interim period. Instead of using color to define spatial forms, for example, here it is deployed entirely as a means of expression. The picture's large blocks of pure, flat color anticipate the later German movement of Expressionism in many ways. Likewise, the steep perspective that throws us into the room makes for a strange and oppressive disorientation. The lamps that give off an almost tangible, luminous energy add to the overall sense that, as Van Gogh himself so aptly put it: "it is the delirium tremens in full swing."