Lindsay Koso

Vincent Van Gogh, Night Cafe, 1888. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut

Figure 1. Vincent Van Gogh, Night Cafe, 1888. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut

Intention is the underlying message or goal for a work of art, as conceived by its artist. This is to say that when creating an artwork, the artist imbues the work with certain meanings that are often considered the most privileged source when interpreting the artwork.

Whether intention is the ultimate authority, however, is a larger question. Authorial intention often plays an enormous role in the interpretation of artworks, serving as the basis for many art historical arguments. In general there are two camps for the use of intention in the interpretation of art: firstly, there are those that believe the artist’s intention completely governs the meaning and significance of a work of art. If, for example, Monet were to state that he intended his famous waterlilies to analogize Marxist ideals, this first camp would argue that this interpretation was the only “correct” one,  in spite of other interpretations offered by other viewers.

This point of view can be problematized in the case of many artists. Particularly, in the examination of Van Gogh’s Night Café (1888) [fig. 1] and Bedroom in Arles (1888) [fig. 2] we encounter irreconcilable differences in artistic intentions, as stated by Van Gogh himself:

In my painting of the night café I’ve tried to express the idea that the café is a place where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes. Anyway, I tried with contrasts of delicate pink and blood-red and wine-red. Soft Louis XV and Veronese green contrasting with yellow greens and hard blue greens.

All of that in an ambience of a hellish furnace, in pale sulphur/To express something of the power of the dark corners of a grog-shop.

Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 9 September 1888 

Vincent Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1889. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

Figure 1. Vincent Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1889. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

In an 1888 letter describing his Bedroom in Arles, however, he turns the meaning of this intense color palette on its head, stating that it was intended as a depiction of calm:

By means of all these very diverse tones I have wanted to express an absolute restfulness, you see, and there is no white in it at all except a little note produced by the mirror with its black frame…

Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, 17 October 1888

The same “wine-red” that Van Gogh uses to such great effect in his Night Café to create the aura of madness and darkness is spread calmly across his bed in Bedroom in Arles; the unsettling greens of the pool table in the Café are echoed in the windows and floor of the Bedroom. What, then, are we to make of Van Gogh’s use of color? Is it madness or restfulness that he intends? And, given that color is such an emotionally evocative component for a viewer, do his intentions for madness and calm hold power over every viewer who encounters these two works? His contradicting statements muddy the waters of interpretation, to be sure, but the complication is compounded by the fact that color and emotion are so subjective that it is possible Van Gogh’s intentions might become lost in translation when viewed.

The second camp continues this debate. As Susan Sontag has written, “It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted.”1 Once a work of art has left the studio, it is beyond the reach of intention. This is to say, works of art are free to interpretation and subject to a changing meaning as soon as they are made. An artist’s desires for a work cannot be adhered to the surface of a work, and it is likely that the meaning of a work of art will evolve as its physical and social contexts change. Many artists have refused to acknowledge the importannce of their own intentions. As the American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein says: “I wouldn’t believe anything I tell you.”2

And what about those artists who have not left written evidence for art historians to examine their intentions? As David Carrier argues of the old master Giorgione:

Often we lack any written statement of an artist’s intentions. But since artists are language users, we can believe that they express in their art intentions which can be put into words. Not only the content of a picture but also how that content is depicted depends, we often think, upon the artist’s intentions… One goal of much art history is to create a vocabulary by which to identify these visual qualities of the artwork.3

The validity of applying the lens of intention to an artist’s work is only acceptable because of the assumption that all artworks are created with intention.4 Likewise, the discipline of art history has a tendency to favor bibliographic information of artists when assigning meaning to their works. Although this assumption seems natural, that an artist’s experiences are the greatest determinants of the work he or she produces, it cannot be applied to every movement, or even every artist, with abandon. Intention is not an equally applied, nor an equally observed concept. However, it is an incredibly informative lens to apply to art works that can be used effectively in conjunction with other forms of analysis.



  1. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 9.
  2. As quoted by Sylvan Barnet in A Short Guide to Writing About Art, 11th edition (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 24.
  3. David Carrier, “Artist’s Intentions and Art Historian’s Interpretation of the Artwork,” The MIT Press 19, no. 4 (1986): 338.
  4. Ibid., 339.