Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Friday, 20 September 1889
In the Autumn of 1889 Vincent remains ill. He consoles himself by copying works from some of his favorite artists. He works in a small studio in the asylum of Saint Paul of Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence as he recovers from a prolonged episode of mental illness.
“Good – since I’m above all ill at present, I’m trying to do something to console myself, for my own pleasure. I place the black-and-white by Delacroix or Millet or after them in front of me as a subject. And then I improvise colour on it but, being me, not completely of course, but seeking memories of their paintings – but the memory, the vague consonance of colours that are in the same sentiment, if not right – that’s my own interpretation.”
Van Gogh creates the Pietà paintings after Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf’s black and white lithograph of Delacroix’s Pietà. The subject and composition from the original remain, but Van Gogh lends his own style to the artwork. Delacroix’s influence helped van Gogh develop artistically and gain knowledge of color theory.
To his brother Theo, Vincent writes:
“What I admire so much about Delacroix… is that he makes us feel the life of things, and the expression of movement, that he absolutely dominates his colours.”
Two Versions of “Pieta”
In addition to van Gogh’s larger Pieta painting now found in the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent paints another smaller version of the Pietà for his sister Willemien just a few months before his tragic death in July 1890. The smaller version now resides in Rome. (see image below)
Click for Enlarged Images:
Why the Pieta?
In a letter to his sister Willemien dated September 19, 1889, van Gogh writes about trying to mimic Delacroix’s Pietà as he copies other favorites:
These last weeks I have also painted some pictures for myself – I don’t especially like to see my own pictures in my bedroom, which is why I copied one picture by Delacroix and some others by Millet.
The Delacroix is a “Pietà” that is to say the dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies on the ground in the entrance of a cave, the hands held before it on the left side, and the woman is behind it. It is in the evening after a thunderstorm, and that forlorn figure in blue clothes – the loose clothes are agitated by the wind – is sharply outlined against a sky in which violet clouds with golden edges are floating. She too stretches out her empty arms before her in a large gesture of despair, and one sees the good sturdy hands of a working woman. The shape of the figure with its streaming clothes is nearly as broad as it is high. And the face of the dead man is in the shadow – but the pale head of the woman stands out clearly against a cloud – a contrast which causes those two heads to seem like one somber-hued flower and one pale flower, arranged in such a way as mutually to intensify the effect. (Harrison)
Click for Enlarged Images:
The Lithograph – Oops!
Vincent writes to Theo,
“I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled. I was sad about it – then in the meantime I occupied myself painting it, and you’ll see it one day, on a no. 5 or 6 canvas I’ve made a copy of it which I think has feeling” To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 10 September 1889
According to the Van Gogh Museum, the lithograph has survived, complete with stain. (see image above)
Click for Enlarged Detail
“Van Gogh bases his Pietà on a lithograph of a painting by Eugène Delacroix. In fact, it is more a variation on the original work than a copy. From Delacroix, Van Gogh [takes] the theme of the Virgin Mary mourning the dead Christ, as well as the composition. He [adds] his own colour and personal signature.” Quote from Van Gogh Museum
Thanks for Reading! 🙂
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, “Pieta (after Delacroix)“, Vincent van Gogh, https://www.vangoghmuseum.com/en/collection/s0168V1962(accessed Sept. 11, 2018).
Harrison, R (ed.). “Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written 19 September 1889 in Saint-Rémy”. Van Gogh letters. van Gogh, J. WebExhibits. (Retrieved Sept. 11, 2018).
Wikipedia contributors, “Copies by Vincent van Gogh,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Copies_by_Vincent_van_Gogh&oldid=843716285 (accessed September 12, 2018).
Van Gogh Letters, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let801/letter.html, (accessed Sept. 12, 2018).
Van Gogh Letters, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let804/letter.html, (accessed Sept. 12, 2018).
Vincent van Gogh, Pietà (after Delacroix) 1889, oil on canvas, 73 cm x 60.5 cm
Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).