The original of this artwork was titled 'Newgate Prison Exercise Yard' and was drawn by Gustav Dore. Van Gogh decided to make an oil copy of it, improvising by adding a little colour and giving the painting his own visual interpretation. Towards the end of his stay in the asylum, Van Gogh regained strength and decided to make the painting, as his desire to leave the asylum intensified.
The painting portrays inmates marching slowly in what seems to be an endless circle. They appear to be exercising their limbs. You can also see that the prisoners are being watched by a guard, meaning there is no escape. There are also two gentlemen present. These two seem indifferent to whatever is happening, as one of them even has his back turned away from the circle of prisoners. The painting gives a glimpse of prison life as prisoners march for exercise in the prison yard. They are surrounded by very high walls that appear to go up forever. The dark brick walls are very high reaching towards the sky. The sun seems to lie far out of the frame in Van Gogh's painting.
Van Gogh copied several paintings by other artists during his stay at the asylum. Prisoners Exercising is considered to be among the best. Some people even argue that it might be better than the original version. Others go further to argue that the tall prisoner that has light shining on his face might be Vincent van Gogh. There is however no evidence to support this claim. The painting centres around this blond-headed prisoner who appears at the front of the line. This particular prisoner is the only one that isn't seen wearing a hat. He stands out from the rest of the crowd. His feet also appear to be angling away from the circle's path, as if he intends to leave it.
The painting also portrays three small windows that appear to be very high up. They are above the reach of any of the prisoners at the courtyard. The painting is interpreted to reflect Van Gogh's frustration of being confined within the asylum walls. It is said that Van Gogh felt like a prisoner when he was painting this piece. It could also be interpreted as Van Gogh being mentally distraught, as it was a particularly difficult time for him. The prisoners moving in an endless circle signified him being caught in a never-ending cycle of mental illness. Vincent's Prisoners Exercising hangs at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Mosco, Russia.