What is a Pieta? It’s an artistic scene depicting the Virgin Mary sorrowfully receiving the body of her son, the crucified Jesus. It’s a subject popular in Western civilization in the last two thousand years, even after the Catholic Church stopped bankrolling many major artists. One of the most famous Pietas in modern history is done by the enigmatic Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890).
Van Gogh could rarely afford models, so he often copied existing artwork in order to paint. His Pieta is a copy of a lithograph he had done by Nanteuil. This lithograph was a copy of a Pieta done by acclaimed French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863.) This is not a faithful copy but Delacroix’s painting done in Van Gogh’s vibrant, Impressionist style.
Although there are similarities in figure shapes, positioning and theme, there are many differences between the original Delacroix and Van Gogh’s version. Delacroix renders a typical religious painting, where the central characters are unmistakably more than human. Jesus seems to hold himself up despite being dead while Mary’s blue dress and red cloak flow dramatically. The way Mary’s clothes flow suggests that a strong wind is blowing, but nothing else in the painting, such as Jesus’ hair, moves.
Van Gogh’s figures are much more human. Both Mary and Jesus have the same skin coloration. Van Gogh put his paint on the canvas in very heavy layers. Coupled with brighter colors and a lack of red, the figures seem slightly squiggly. This slightly distorted image may have been inspired by visual disturbances Van Gogh is thought to have experienced. Whether that cause was a seizure disorder or migraine aura is unknown.
Van Gogh decided to try his hand at Delacroix’s Pieta after his lithograph became damaged. It fell into a patch of bright oil paint that Van Gogh could not remove. This caused a huge bright round patch near Mary’s head. This damaged copy was kept by the Van Gogh family and still exists.
This was painted in 1889, when the artist had less than one year to live. This year was also his most productive and included some of his most beloved works. After years of struggling to achieve his own painting style which was considered ugly at the time, Van Gogh had finally mastered it.
Van Gogh. Rene Huyghe. Crown Publishers; 1967.
Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. Irving Stone & Jean Stone, editors. Plume; 1995.