This Van Gogh Museum Cafe Ad Is Hilarious

by Kyle Chayka on January 17, 2013

Ad for the Van Gogh Museum's cafe (Image via Van Gogh Museum)

Ad for the Van Gogh Museum’s cafe (Image via Van Gogh Museum)

From the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam comes this fantastic advertisement for their cafe. Do you get the joke? The quietly brilliant ad pictures a single coffee cup on a saucer, perfectly pristine except for the fact that its handle has been broken off. A mistake? To understand, it might help to take a look at one of van Gogh’s self portraits, namely, the 1889 “Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.”

Vincent van Gogh, "Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear" (1889) (Image via

Vincent van Gogh, “Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear” (1889) (Image via

In late 1888, van Gogh had sunk into a period of depression. He fought with his fellow painter Gauguin and threatened the then more popular artist with a razor blade, fleeing the scene in a panic and ending up at the brothel that formed his most consistent human contact. Later, he sliced off his left ear and presented it wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute named Rachel. Gauguin found him and delivered him to the hospital, where he started the downward slide in mental health that ended his career. Though this is certainly not the only theory about what happened to Van Gogh’s ear.

Hence the bandage over van Gogh’s ear in the self portrait, and the visual pun of the museum’s cafe advertisement. Hopefully their coffee doesn’t have the same impact that absinthe did on the Impressionists.

h/t @darraghdoyle

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  • Elwyn Palmerton

    It’s worth mentioning that, if I understand correctly, absinthe is often served by being poured over a sugar cube. At least this is what underground parties in Brooklyn have lead me to believe. So, the the sugar cube is an absinthe reference.

    • Could be! Or it could be just a coffee accoutrement. We may never know.

      • Elwyn Palmerton

        Right! Because the key to reading cultural imagery is to remember that images only ever mean one thing and that we should always err on the side of the most literal reading possible! ;)

    • Chris Airplays

      Yep, you drip water over the sugar cube very slowly into the absinthe below.

  • My take on the ad is that it was despicable. For his own museum to make light of his suffering is out of touch, don’t you think? I don’t get that his self portrait was making light of anythng, just recounting the personal history and reality. The ad is trite, something Van Gogh wasn’t.

  • After having studied the life of the artist, my understanding is that Vincent Van Gogh did only cut a small portion of his ear lobe, and most definitely not his entire ear. Enjoy your bitter cup of malfeasant java with the facts although it seems you prefer fiction with your brew! This exaggeration has lived long as a sensational mechanism to further portray the artist as a madman. I also do not believe that Van Gogh committed suicide, but was shot by the two young men who assailed him while he was out painting. The last place a suicidal person would choose to inflict such a wound is in the stomach, for it is an excruciating wound and lacks the immediacy of a direct shot to the head.

  • If you’ve ever been there I guess you too will be a bit surprised that *that* cafe’s got an ad! I always assumed that they don’t care at all – being the most visited museum they must have clients whatever they do, even if they serve overpriced automatic machine coffee and plastic-wrapped cookies, just like a school cantine. Or has it changed lately?

  • erik
  • I think a lot of these remarks are taking this WAY too seriously. This is brilliant as a marketing campaign, which is exactly the intent. It is not an ad for the museum, but merely the cafe. With that I feel it is fine. For people who are not so into visual art, or who know little about it, they typically know Van Gogh for cutting his ear more than his work, therefore, in terms of marketing, this ad might attract and draw many people who might not otherwise attend. Those posting about the “true facts” etc. clearly have missed the boat, are taking life or at least this too seriously, and just obviously posting about their deep knowledge of the artist. Who cares. Just relax and enjoy the ad for what is meant to be, silly and recognizable.

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