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Formal Analysis: The Prison Courtyard by Vincent Van Gogh Essay

  • The Prison Courtyard (1890) by Vincent van Gogh
  • Approximately 80cm x 64cm
  • Oil on Canvas
  • The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia
  • The Prison Courtyard

The prison Courtyard was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1890, while he was in “prison” himself. Due to his mental illness, he was locked up in the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint Remy, as per the recommendations of his doctor. While in the asylum, he was allowed to paint, as painting was the only thing that kept him sane from his violent convulsions. He died five months later after completing this masterpiece. The painting represents a group of inmates walking in a circle as wardens watch them. The painting is currently located at The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.

This artwork has a vertical configuration. Van Gogh used this upright structure to highlight the limited space of the courtyard. He was also emphasizing on the maximum confinement of the prison, because the walls are extremely high and unsurmountable. There are three major elements in this drawing: the concrete walls, the floor and humans. The walls are three. He cleverly used thick lines to showcase the corners of the walls. The middle wall overlooks the viewer, while two parallel walls are connected to it. The courtyard can therefore be assumed to be a four dimensional open space.

Van Gogh creatively uses colors in this piece. For the walls, he uses various shades of brown and grey for the bricks and white color to silhouette the edges of the bricks. The wall opposite the viewer (middle wall) and the right wall have brighter bricks on the upper sides, while the left wall has dull shades of grey and brown bricks. However, all the three walls are dull at the bottom. He also uses contour lines that are blurry on the bricks to reveal rough texture of the bricks. The vertical contour lines are more prominent on the lower sides of the walls.

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He uses crooked lines as outlines to reveal the distorted nature of the bricks. He uses a blend of white and grey colors to fix dome shaped windows on the right and middle walls.
The right wall has three windows, while the middle window has one and the left window has none. At the center of the windows, Van Gogh uses a darker hue to reveal that on the other side is probably a room or the inmates’ cells. Since the walls are generally darker at the bottom, he uses a deeper shade of black for the outline of the inmates.

The prisoners, who are at the focal point of the painting are dressed in faded green and brown outfits. They move in a continuous circular movement. Their clothes have rugged outlines with lack of proportionality to their bodies giving the appearance of oversized clothes. The trousers look wrinkly and tattered. All inmates seem to have caps, except the one at the front. The heads and upper sections of their bodies seem bent forward maybe due to exhaustion caused by over walking. They move in a clockwise direction with each inmate closely following the other at the back. Prisoners at the foreground are more defined, while the ones at the back are somewhat blurry.

At the foreground on the left is a group of four men. The first one is dressed in dark outfits with a red army hat. His gaze is fixated on the prisoners and his arms are folded on his chest. Next to him is a man dressed in blue with a top hat. It seems he is a man of advanced age based on the white beard seen at the corner of his jaw. His arms are held together on his back and he seems to be chatting with the other two men. Nothing much is revealed about the next two men except for a small outline of their faces. One seems to be looking at the inmates, while the other one looks at the man in blue. The dark outlines of their clothes reveal their clothes are tight fitting and are of good quality.

The pavers on the floors are arranged in no discernible plan. The darker outlines of bricks reveal they have different shapes and sizes. He uses a blend of green and white with a touch of brown here and there to bring out the worn out state of the pavers. He also uses random lines on the pavers to showcase the rough texture of the floor. Another technique that Van Gogh utilizes is the use of light. We see that the walls are basically brighter on top and they become darker below.

This can only mean that there is an overhead source of light- probably the moon. The light shines on the prisoners casting their shadows on the pavers. The light however does not extend to the officials on the far left corner and they are suspended in darkness. He shows the reflection of the light on the floor by the use of color white that contrasts well with the dull green and grey colors of the pavers.

It could not be a coincidence that Van Gogh made this painting while he was in an asylum. Although he was mentally unstable, he was still aware of his circumstances. When you look closely at the inmates, you realize that the one in front is different from the rest. He is at the focal point of the drawing, closely gazing at the viewers- maybe trying to tell them something. He is looking at the only point of exit fixedly. The bright light ensures that his face is vividly clear to viewers.

While the other prisoners look beaten with drooping postures, he is the only one that stands tall. Unbeknownst to the officers, he is probably planning something that will set him free from bondage. The asylum and his failing mental health felt like a prison to Van Gogh and just like the strange prisoner in his portrait, he had to set himself free. He died from a self-inflicted gun wound. Whether it was suicide or it was his unstable nature that made him shoot himself, we will never know, but the fact remains he set himself free.

References:

  • Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). The Prison Courtyard (1890)
  • Japan’s prisons swell with elderly inmates | Reuters.com
  • Prisoners Exercising (after Doré) – Vincent van Gogh

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