The Pietà (after Delacroix) marks the start of a series of paintings that Van Gogh made after artists such as Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier and Rembrandt. Millet's work, who greatly influenced Van Gogh, figures prominently in this series. 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 strings of a violin – completely for my pleasure."

Several religious works, such as The Pietà, were included in the series, notable exceptions in his oeuvre. Saint-Paul asylum, housed in an old monastery, may have provided some of the inspiration for the specific subject. The nuns devoutness sometimes annoyed him, but he did find solace in religion. He wrote: "I am not indifferent, and pious thoughts often console me in my suffering."

Van Gogh Museum asserts that Van Gogh may have identified with Christ "who had also suffered and been misunderstood." They also offer the conjecture of some scholars of a resemblance between the Van Gogh and the red-bearded Christ in The Pietà and Lazarus in the copy after Rembrandt. However, it is unknown whether or not this was Van Gogh's intention.

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