City blog. Rome based.

A Van Gogh painting in the Vatican Museums

By crossing the entrance of the Vatican Museums we mostly think about art, history and religion. We think about the power of Roman sculptures and the calm of Egyptian statues. To the timeless perfection of the Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo and Raphael.

And that’s exactly where we have to go: halfway between the rooms frescoed by Raphael for popes Julius II and Leo X and Michelangelo’s sensational Sistine Chapel. There, in the rooms frescoed at the end of the 1400s by Pinturicchio for Pope Alexander VI Borgia, we find a museum of modern art; this is the collection opened in 1973 by Pope Paul VI, one of the thirteen museums of the Vatican Museums.

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Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano.

Cet article est disponible en français.

  • Where: Vatican Museums, viale Vaticano
  • When: monday-saturday 9-18
  • Why: that’s a wonderful museum, and a new treasure is just around the corner!

The Vatican Museums are a small world, divided into multiple sections. The collections are made up of about 70,000 pieces in a 7 km long route. In the Pope’s museums we can enjoy a huge amount of Roman sculptures, Egyptian and Etruscan discoveries, sacred and early Christian art, decorated galleries, the ancient papal apartments, a collection of carriages and an ethnological one, paintings, frescoes… Definitely too much to be appreciated in only a few hours.

The Modern art Collection of the Vatican Museums

A room of the Modern art collection of the Vatican Museums – picture

It is therefore completely understandable the reason why most visitors make a selection, focusing on the masterpieces of ancient art or Renaissance painting. Only a few of the 30,000 daily visitors know of the existence, within this huge complex, of an art collection dating back to 1800s and 1900s.

The most popular artists of the past two centuries are represented in this true museum of sacred art. Among them, Vincent Van Gogh is one of the best known, although one of the least visible on the visit itinerary.

Get away from the path followed by organized groups and take some time to get lost into the labyrinth of this museum. In a room generally ignored by the majority of visitors, is on display a small painting by Vincent Van Gogh, one of the three present in Rome (the other two are in the National Gallery of Modern Art).

The background: Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin

incent Van Gogh, Hôpital Saint-Paul à Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 1889, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Van Gogh’s Pietà dates back to 1889, and was made in Saint-Rémy-en-Provence, not far from Arles. Here the painter was hospitalized after the famous story of his ear cutting.

In fact, in the late 1888, together with the painter Paul Gauguin he had attempted the creation of a sort of artistic brotherhood which, however, was not very successful, ending with the most famous quarrel in the of art history.

Van Gogh cuts his own ear.

Gauguin moves to Paris.

Van Gogh is hospitalized first in a hospital and then in a nursing home near Saint-Rémy-en-Provence. In these months he painted some of his best known paintings.

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In Saint-Rémy Van Gogh soon restart to work. Just in these months he paints his most popular self-portrait with palette and brushes, where he shows half of the face not mutilated.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self portrait with palette and brushes– 1888 – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh’s Pietà

On September 1889 Van Gogh painted his Pietà: one of the very few paintings with religious topic, the only image of Jesus Christ in his career.

In the same months Gauguin also became interested in religious subjects.

A larger version of the work (73 × 60 cm) was made for his brother Théo, art merchand in Paris, and is now on display in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The smaller one (42 × 34 cm) is now in the Vatican Museums. Originally painted for his sister Willemien, it ends up at the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles and then, in 1973 it was donated to the Vatican Museums by the Diocese of New York.

Vincent Van Gogh, Pietà (d’après Delacroix), 1889, Musei Vaticani

Vincent Van Gogh, Pietà (d’après Delacroix), 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

It is his interpretation of a lithograph of the painting made by the French artist Eugène Delacroix in 1840 for the church Saint-Denis-du-Sacrement in the Marais district in Paris, now in the Oslo National Museum.

The likenes of the painting from Delacroix’s work is no way denied, but absolutely glaring. On the left, next to the hand of Christ, Van Gogh specifies that the author of the original is Delacroix (d’après Eug Delacroix: by Eugène Delacroix), and signs it with his name: Vincent.

Eugène Delacroix, Pietà, 1840, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo

Célestin François Nanteuil-Leboeuf, Pietà, litografia in “Les artistes anciens et modernes”

Vincent Van Gogh, Pietà (d’après Delacroix), 1889, Musei Vaticani

In a letter written in 1885 to his artist friend Anton Von Rappard, Van Gogh already wrote about Delacroix. Referring precisely to the Pietà of French artist for the Parisian church, he mentioned an essay by the French art critic Théodore Silvestre of 1864:

Eugène Delacroix […] who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart

Van Gogh was mostly fascinated by Delacroix’ strength and impetuosity. At that time he often quotes Delacroix in the letters sent to his brother Théo and other correspondents; in particular, this sentence must have particularly impressed Van Gogh, who surely mentions it in two other letters: that to his brother on 9 February 1885 and to the painter Emile Bernard of 30 July 1888.

It is Vincent Van Gogh himself who expressly asks his brother to purchase a print of Delacroix’s Pietà for him (letter dated 24 September 1888). The lithograph created by Célestin François Nanteuil-Leboeuf for the collection “Les artistes anciens et modernes” would have been added to the Japanese prints collection that he kept in his hospital room.

Van Gogh and religious subjects

Religious topics are in Van Gogh extremely rare, and always are based on his mostly loved artists’ works: Delacroix is the sample for the Pietà and for the Good Samaritan (Van Gogh Museum, 1890, from the engraving by Jules Joseph Augustin Laurens), Rembrandt for The Rising of Lazarus and for the Head of Angel.

Van Gogh was the son of a Protestant minister; the painter himself, when was younger, choose to pursue his father’s career, but fuinelly he choose art.

Eugène Delacroix, The Good Samaritan, 1849, Private collection

Jules Joseph Augustin Laurens, The Good Samaritan, litograph (after Delacroix), 1849-1850, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent Van Gogh, The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), 1890, Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo (Netherlands)

Rembrandt, The rising of Lazarus, 1860, Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The rising of Lazarus (detail), print, 1632

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The rising of Lazarus (detail), print, 1632

Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Théo Van Gogh with a sketch of The rising of Lazarus, may 2nd 1890

Vincent Van Gogh, The rising of Lazarus, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh point of view

Vincent Van Gogh, Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889, Musei Vaticani

Our Dutch painter offers us a color version of Delacroix’s lithograph, according to his style. The composition is the same, where Maria is holding up and showing the dead body of her son, but Van Gogh twists it with its strong and contrasting colors and its vigorous and tormented brush strokes. The setting is also the same, but the background is fiery from the setting sun.

In his room in Arles, Van Gogh kept lithographs of the works of his favorite artists, including the one that inspired the Pietà of the Vatican Museums. The artist himself  wrote in his letter to his brother Théo (September 10th 1889) about his creative method, to achieve this work: his lithograph by Delacroix , the same he asked Théo to purchase the previous year, was damaged by falling on the colors; Vincent seems to be very impressed by this event, deciding to make two paintings with the same subject.

Pietà c. 1850 By Célestine François Nanteuil-Lebouef after Eugène Delacroix Van Gogh Museum Vincent van Gogh Foundation, copy damaged by Van Gogh in 1889

He decides to paint on canvas a color version of Delacroix’s lithograph in black and white,

making two copies.

Through his personal style and bright colors, Van Gogh appropriates Delacroix’s black and white lithograph, almost identifying himself with the suffering of the dead Christ.

This mysticism and this closeness to religion will not be able to save his tormented soul, and the following year (1890) Van Gogh would have committed suicide by a gunshot.

Take some time to take advantage of the hidden beauty of the Vatican Museums. Only by moving away from the beaten paths will you be able to find real treasures.

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