Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 73 X 60.5 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
    (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)
  • F 630

This Pietà – the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead Christ – is based on a lithograph by Nanteuil after a painting by Eugène Delacroix. Van Gogh painted it in 1889, during his confinement at the hospital in Saint-Rémy. It is more a variation on the original than a true copy: the painter adopted both the subject and composition, but executed it in his own color and style.

As he wrote to Theo, the pretext for the painting was an accident which had occurred during his illness: “The Delacroix lithograph La Pietà, 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.” The stained lithograph has also survived.

More information about "Pietà (after Delacroix)"

Religion

Religious works such as Pietà are an exception in Van Gogh’s oeuvre. On the other hand, it is probably no accident that the painter chose to work on this particular subject.

The hospital at Saint-Rémy was housed in an old monastery. Although the devoutness of the nuns sometimes annoyed him, he did find a certain solace in religion: “I am not indifferent, and pious thoughts often console me in my suffering.”

It seems quite likely that Van Gogh may, in some sense, have identified with Christ – who had also suffered and been misunderstood. Some scholars have noted the resemblance between the painter and the red-bearded Christ in the Pietà and, above all to Lazarus in the copy after Rembrandt. Whether this was intended, however, is not known.

Improvising on the Old Masters

The Pietà marks the beginning of an entire series of paintings after artists such as Daumier, Rembrandt and above all Millet, who had also been a source of inspiration in Van Gogh’s earlier work. These enabled him to continue painting even when one of his episodes prevented him from working outdoors.

He wrote to Theo about these copies: “I started making them inadvertently and now find that I can learn from them and that they give me a kind of comfort. My brush then moves through my fingers like a bow over the stings of a violin – completely for my pleasure.”

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