Pieta (after Delacroix)  by van Gogh (1889)

Pieta (after Delacroix) by van Gogh (1889)

In my last blog I looked at how Vincent van Gogh had copied three Japanese woodcut prints and had incorporated his own inimitable style to his versions.  In my blog today I want to look at the versions he painted of a painting by one of his favourite European artists –Eugène Delacroix.

In February 1888, Vincent, tired and disillusioned with life in the French capital, moved to Arles and went to live at No. 2 Place Lamartine in the Yellow House which he had rented.   He invited Paul Gaugin to join him but the latter was rather reluctant.   Vincent’s brother, Theo, was worried about Vincent living alone and so in October pays Paul Gaugin to visit his brother and stay with him.   For the next two months, Gauguin and Van Gogh worked harmoniously together, spending all their time painting and discussing art.

However personal tensions grew between the two men and two days before Christmas Day, Van Gogh experienced what was termed a psychotic episode in which he threatens Gauguin with a razor.  Gaugin fearful for his life left the house but was followed by Vincent.  When Gauguin turned around he saw Van Gogh holding a razor in his hand.  Hours later, Van Gogh went to the local brothel and paid for a prostitute named Rachel. With blood pouring from his hand, he offered her his ear, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” The police found him in his room the next morning, and admitted him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.  Gaugin was horrified by the incident and immediately returned to Paris. Vincent’s brother arrived on Christmas Day to see Van Gogh, who was weak from blood loss and having violent seizures. The doctors assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of, and on January 7, 1889, Van Gogh was released from the hospital.  He was now alone and became very depressed and only his painting relieved the dark moods he was experiencing.   He would paint at the yellow house during the day and return to the hospital at night.  However, the local people of Arles viewed Vincent as somebody mentally disturbed and a risk to the people of the community and petitioned him to leave the town.  Reluctantly he decided to move from Arles and go to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, a former monastery, in the town. Whilst there, he completed numerous oil paintings and drawings.

Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)National Museum of Oslo

Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)
National Museum of Oslo

It was whilst Van Gogh was confined to the asylum at Saint-Rémy that he decided to work on a painting based on the Piétà by Eugène Delacroix.   Van Gogh loved the work of Delacroix.  He loved how the French artist used bold and vibrant colours in his works.  In numerous letters to his brother, Theo, he would extol the virtues of Delacroix’s works asking him to buy lithograph prints of Delacroix’s works.   Vincent had in his possession a lithograph by Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf of Delacroix’s  Pietà.  Célestine Nanteuil was a 19th century French painter, engraver and illustrator closely tied to the Romantic Movement in France.  It is believed that the reason Van Gogh decided to paint his own Pietà was because of an accident he had with his copy of the lithograph.  He wrote a letter to Theo in which he says:

“…The Delacroix lithograph La Piétà, as well as several others, fell into my oils and paints and was damaged. This upset me terribly, and I am now busy making a painting of it, as you will see…”

Van Gogh decided that his Pietà was not going to be an exact copy of Delacroix’s work but more of a variation of the French artist’s painting.   Van Gogh described Delacroix’s Piétà in a letter, dated September 19th 1889, to his sister Willemien.  Vincent van Gogh talked about his copying of other artists’ works and describes the Delacroix’s Pietà:

“…I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix  and a few by Millet.  The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands.  With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better…”

Van Gogh’s positioning and the demeanour of the Virgin Mary, cradling her dead son, as well as the background in his version remain the same as in the lithograph but Van Gogh has added his own colours and “swirling” style.   We see before us the tortured body of Christ after the crucifixion but look at the way Van Gogh has given him red hair and a red beard.  Some art historians believe that the dead Christ in Van Gogh’s Pietà is actually a self-portrait.  It could well be that Van Gogh empathized with the sufferings of Christ and how Christ had been misunderstood.  He could probably see a similarity between the latter days of Christ’s life and his own final years.  It should be remembered that Van Gogh was creating his Piétà from studying the black and white print of Célestine Nanteuil lithograph and so he was free to choose his own colour scheme.  He used bold blues which contrasted strongly with the golden yellows of the background.  Look how he has decide to emphasize lines and curves and we see the outline of the slumping Christ follows the curvature of the rock on which Christ’s body rests.

I wonder if Van Gogh believed that like Christ, he would be reincarnated, in as much as he believed that he would eventually recover from his bouts of mental illness.

This painting is unusual in another way for Van Gogh was not known for his religious works.  However the asylum at Saint-Rémy was once a monastery and was run by an order of nuns and this could have been another reason for Van Gogh to embark on this religious painting.  In a letter to his brother on September 10th 1889 he talks about his mental problems, of Delacroix and why he decided to turn to religion for the subject of his painting:

“…Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left.  Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong. 

When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him [Doctor Peyron then director of the asylum was due to meet Theo in Paris] but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters.  Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. 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…”

Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s  Pietà

Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s Pietà

Vincent van Gogh was never apologetic for “copying” the works of other artists, such as, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, Jacob Jordaens, Émile Bernard, Gustave Doré , Eugène Delacroix and some of the Japanese printmakers.   He would compare his copying to that of a musical performance with the original artists as the composers and himself as a simple musician interpreting the instructions of the composer.   He made two copies of the Piétà.  The one which belonged to the Van Gogh family hangs in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the other is part of the Vatican Museum of Modern Art collection.  The latter copy was donated to the Catholic Church by a New York parishioner in the 1930’s.  This Vatican copy is much smaller than the one held at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and much darker in colour but this could be the result of poor restoration and cleaning.   Van Gogh’s lithograph print which was damaged can also be found in the Van Gogh museum.

Van Gogh liked his finished “copies” of the Delacroix Piétà and took it with him when he finally left the asylum, against doctor’s orders, in May 1890 to go and live in Auvers-sur-Oise.  It was one of the few works he kept with him and remained with him until his death, two months later, in July 1890.  The rest of his large collection he had painted over those last twelve months at the asylum were parcelled up and sent to his brother.


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