“M. Vincent, peintre impressionniste travaille, nous assure-t-on, le soir, à la lueur des becs de gaz, sur l’une de nos places. [M. Vincent, an Impressionist painter, works, we are told, in the evening, by the light of the gas lamps, in one of our squares]”
“Chronique artistique et musicale”, L’Homme de Bronze, Arles, 30 September 1888.
He arrives at Place du Forum as the Arles sky pours its waning light over the precipice of dusk. He had spent another day beneath Provence’s expansive brilliance. In Paris, Lautrec had filled his brain with absinthe-tinged anticipation of how southern light became an inundating flood as the day progressed, flushing fields and orchards and blossoming trees free of all colour, sweeping those colours, awash in daylight, down the sky like a waterfall over the horizon.
A full spring and summer of this had been his and now September worms its way into the alleys and winding backways of his brain. He must find how to brush these light-drenched night skies onto canvas as well. “I definitely want to paint a starry sky now” he writes his sister, Wilhelmina. “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow.”
He slides the tripod’s weight off his aching shoulder, stretches and sighs, unfolds the slender legs, taps them so that each stands steady, wedged between the cobblestones of Pas du Palais, takes up his palette, the pungent odor of linseed oil overpowering the aromas of coffee, terrine of foie gras, drifting his way from the warm glow of the café terrace.
Night descends quickly, and he lights candles he has affixed to his straw hat, becomes artist aglow, sees his pigments with new eyes. “It’s quite true,” he writes,“ 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…”
The waiters take orders, the diners chatter and bite and chew and swallow away, glassware clinks, knife and fork clatter against porcelain and pewter. Passers-by ooh and ahh with delight, chuckle at their good fortune to see the artist at work at such a strange hour, his red beard alive with candle glow and flicker. “To the great delight of the café proprietor, the postmaster, and those who love the night, and to my own, I have stayed up for three nights and slept during the day. It sometimes seems to me that the night is much livelier, and its colours intenser, than the day,” he would scrawl into tomorrow's letter to Wil.
At last he steps back, inspects his canvas, crosses his arms, nods, smiles. A busboy on his way home looks over Vincent’s shoulder, then up at the sky. A prostitute steps out from her doorway and joins them. She has spent her working life on this corner but has not seen till now what is all around her. She too turns her gaze skyward. The night and the stars have changed for them both—for us as well, from this point, for all time, forever.
Roy J Beckemeyer
Quotes in the poem are from Letter 678 (in French) from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, Arles, 9 and 16 September 1888. [http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let678/letter.html]
The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum was the first of van Gogh's starry night works. It was followed by: Starry Night Over the Rhone (Musee d"Orsay, painted September 1888), Portrait of Eugene Boch (Musee d'Orsay, painted September 1888), and Starry Night (MOMA, painted June 1889).
Roy Beckemeyer’s latest book is Mouth Brimming Over (2019, Blue Cedar). Stage Whispers (2018, Meadowlark) won the 2019 Nelson Poetry Book Award. Amanuensis Angel (2018, Spartan Press) contains ekphrastic poems inspired by artists’ depictions of angels. Music I Once Could Dance To (2014, Coal City) was a 2015 Kansas Notable Book. Roy Beckemeyer has designed and built airplanes, discovered and named fossils of Palaeozoic insect species, and once traveled the world. Beckemeyer lives with and for his wife of 60 years, Pat, in Wichita, Kansas.
The Ekphrastic Review
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