Vincent van Gogh, The Prison Courtyard

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow (Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина)

Date: 1890
Technique: Oil on canvas, 80 x 64 cm

Van Gogh painted The Prison Courtyard while “imprisoned” himself, in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint Rémy. He died 5 months later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the culmination of his long struggle with physical and mental illness.

The Prison Courtyard expresses the artist’s hopelessness and despair. In the lower part of the painting, thirty-three inmates form a human corona, pacing heads down, in defeated rote and joyless resignation. In spite of the shared misery and monochrome prison garb, they are not uniformly anonymous; some faces can be deciphered, particularly the one in the center, whose blond hair is lighted by an imperceptible sun’s ray. That is van Gogh himself in what has been interpreted as a “metaphoric self-portrait”.

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