Vincent van Gogh painted Prisoners Exercising, or Prisoners’ Round, in February of 1890 during his time at the Saint-Remy asylum. It is a copy of an engraving by Gustave Dore titled, Newgate Exercise Yard which offers a glimpse into prison life as inmates slowly march in a circle for exercise in the prison yard, surrounded by walls that seem to go up forever. While in the asylum, Van Gogh copied a number of paintings by other artists. Prisoners Exercising is considered by some to be one of the best copies he created, perhaps even outshining the original artist.
Prisoners Exercising or Prisoners’ Round – c. 1890
Some people have suggested that the tall prisoner with the light shining on his face, who seems to be looking out from the canvas might actually be a portrait of the artist, Van Gogh. However, there is no evidence to support the validity of this claim and not all critics agree. One must wonder if while painting this piece Van Gogh felt like a prisoner himself, confined within the walls of Saint Paul de Mausole asylum or perhaps to a mentally distraught captivity.
In a letter to Albert Aurier, Van Gogh’s friend, Emile Bernard wrote about visiting Van Gogh’s room during his funeral and seeing the studies surrounding the coffin,
“Convicts walking in a circle surrounded by high prison walls, a canvas inspired by Doré of a terrifying ferocity and which is also symbolic of his end. Wasn’t life like that for him, a high prison like this with such high walls – so high…and these people walking endlessly round this pit, weren’t they the poor artists, the poor damned souls walking past under the whip of Destiny?…”