Vincent van Gogh, the Copyist. Part 2 – Delacroix’s Pietà

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.

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

The Barque of Dante by Delacroix (1822)

When I first saw today’s featured painting I was immediately reminded of Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, which was My Daily Art Display on June 10th.  There was something about the look of suffering and desperation on the faces of the men on Géricault’s sinking raft that I could see on the faces of Delacroix’s men in today’s painting.  My Daily Art Display today looks at the painting entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugène Delacroix.  The painting is also known as The Barque of Dante and was painted by the French artist in 1822.   

The painting is based on Canto VIII of the Inferno, the first part of the 14th century epic poem the Divine Comedy written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.  The poem is an allegory recording the journey of Dante through Hell along with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil.  According to the poem Hell is made up of nine concentric circles of suffering located within the Earth.  Each circle representing one sin and is the place where those who have committed that sin and who are unrepentant will end up and receive an appropriate punishment.  The sinners of each circle are punished in a fashion befitting their crimes.  Each sinner is made miserable for all of eternity by the key sin they have committed. The circles represent a gradual increase in wickedness, culminating at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage.

The painting by Delacroix is based on the fifth circle and is all about the sin of Wrath.  The first circle is nominated as Limbo and the people in there have simply never been baptised into the Church.  The ninth circle is Treachery which is looked upon as the most heinous of sins.  I was amused to note that those unfortunates that had committed the sin of Lust were only allocated  the second circle – maybe for a hot blooded Italian, like Dante Alighieri, lust was hardly a sin at all !!!

The Fifth Circle of Hell is the swamp-like water of the river Styx and in its murky waters, the angry people fight each other on the surface, and the morose and brooding people lie gurgling beneath the water. The character in the poem, Phlegyas, the guardian of the river, reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the River Styx in his skiff.  This lower part of Hell where the characters in the painting find themselves is the marshy swamp that lies outside the walls of the city of Dis, the City of the Dead, which houses the lower parts of Hell, and which we see burning in the left background of the painting.

Delacroix and Géricault comparison

At the beginning I said I saw a similarity between Géricault’s Raft of Medusa painting and this painting by Delacroix.  I actually managed to find a picture which also highlights the likeness in the facial expression of a man in each work.  The main picture, on the right, is of the man in the left foreground of today’s painting as he lies in the water and shown in the inset we have the face of the man who is in the centre of the Géricault’s raft looking sky-wards.  Go back to my earlier blog on Géricaults painting and see if you agree.  Some three years after Géricault completed his Raft of Medusa painting in 1819, Delacroix completed what was his first major work and one which he exhibited in the 1822 Salon, the art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  The oil on canvas painting which measures 189cms x 246cms now hangs in the Louvre.

Dante is given a steadying hand by Virgil as they falteringly stand up in the boat as it ploughs its way through the choppy water of the River Styx, which is heaving with the tormented souls who have been trapped in this fifth circle of hell for their sins of wrath.  The Neo-Classical style which was prevalent at the time can be seen in the way Delacroix has grouped his figures.  The main characters are set in the centre of the painting whilst the subsidiary figures are painted much lower down on a horizontal plane, each holding a classical pose which gives the artist a chance to concentrate on their musculature.  Look how the artist has depicted the gale-force weather condition the boat party have to endure.  See how Delacroix has depicted the blue garment of Phlegyas as he rows his boat.  Although wrapped around his body it flies wildly in the face of the strong wind which roars in from the left of the painting.  The guardian of the river is using every ounce of his strength as we see the muscles of his broad back ripple as he pulls on the oar.  He seems to be sure-footed as he has made this rough crossing many times.  Dante holds his right arm aloft to try and steady himself against the wind’s ferocity, whilst Virgil takes his other hand in an attempt to steady him against the onslaught.   The boat has slewed around and is a little off course as it tries to reach the fiery City of Death.

Look at the characters in the water.  A couple lay back exhausted whilst the others display the anger and hatred which has conspired to send them to this part of Hell.  Look at the piercing demonic eyes of the man that clings to the front of the boat and the staring rage of the man in the water in the right foreground as he seems to be attacking another with his teeth as his adversary grips him by the back of his neck.

The head and demonic face by Delacroix

Look carefully at the man clinging to the gunwale on the far side of the small boat.  See how the muscles and sinews in his arm are almost at breaking point as he tries to heave himself on board.  His reddened eyes are demonic.  It is a frightening depiction of a face and Delacroix admitted that it was his best depiction of a head in the painting.

I am interested to look at the contrast in expressions between our two main characters, Dante and Virgil.  Whereas Dante has a look of horror and fear on his face, Virgil’s facial expression is one of calm and tranquillity as if he is completely detached from what is going on around him. There is also a stark contrast of colours used by Delacroix.  Dante’s red cowl and the fiery inferno of Hell in the background is in sharp contrast to the blue of Phlegyas’ flowing blue robe.

There is such raw emotion in this painting.  We are looking at a world of insanity.  We see before us the rage of angry men who have yet to come to terms with their fate.  We almost wrap our arms around ourselves to protect us from the storm we view and this fifth circle – the circle of Wrath.  Delacroix had worked non-stop for very long hours for nearly three months to have this painting ready for the April opening of The Salon in 1822 and by the time he had completed this work he was totally exhausted.  The work was exhibited with the title:

“…Dante et Virgile conduits par Phlégias, traversent le lac qui entoure les murailles de la ville infernale de Dité…”

Which translated was:

“Dante and Virgil led by Phlegyas, across the lake surrounding the infernal city walls of Dis”

But later came to be known as its present title The Barque of Dante.  The painting received mainly favourable reviews and a few months later it was bought by the French State for 2000 Francs and it was housed in the Musée du Luxembourg but in 1874 transferred to its present location, The Louvre.

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix

The Death of Sardanapulus by Eugène Delacroix (1827)

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix was born in Charenton–St-Maurice near Paris in April 1798.   Delacroix was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school.   As an artist he was inspired by the works of Rubens and the Venetian Renaissance painters, Mantegna, Giorgione and Titian.  Baudelaire the writer and art critic said of Delacroix “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible

My painting for today is one that hangs in the Louvre entitled Death of Sardanapalus which Delacroix painted in 1827.   This massive canvas features the defeated Assyrian ruler Sardanapalus propping himself up on a large bed on which a naked woman prostrates herself begging for mercy.   Sardanapalus, on learning that his armies had been defeated, ordered that his possessions were to be destroyed and that his sex slaves were to be murdered before immolating himself.