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From drawing to print to painting… The round of inspiration

Updated: May 16, 2022

Héliodore Pisan, printmaker, a link between Gustave Doré and Vincent Van Gogh

I visited the beautiful exhibition La Collection Morozov icônes de l’art Moderne at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. In this blog post, I am sharing with you my favourite painting of the exhibition and am taking you on the tracks of an immensely talented engraver of the 19th century whose work I discovered while doing some research after this visit...

My favourite painting of the exhibition: Prisoners’ Round by Vincent Van Gogh

In the small, sombre, circular Room 10 of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, there is only one painting, Prisoners’ Round by Vincent Van Gogh. The museography of the exhibition proposes a lighting such that the light seems to emanate from the canvas itself.

Hanging of Vincent Van Gogh's oil on canvas Prisoners' round at the Morozov exhibition at the Louis Vuitton foundation in Paris 2022
Vincent van Gogh - Prisoners’ Round, Saint-Rémy, 1890 Oil on canvas - 80,0 × 64,0 cm on loan from Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

As its name suggests, this painting represents prisoners exercising in a prison yard (Newgate prison as a matter of fact). In a tight round, watched by prison guards, head bowed, they walk in a circle.

This lesser known painting of Vincent Van Gogh is very striking. The use of complementary colours (blue and orange) and the oppositions between cold and warm tones are wonderful. We learn that it was part of the works placed around Vincent Van Gogh's coffin at his death (as testified by Emile Bernard who made an analogy between the condition of these prisoners and the artists’ condition).

As powerless spectators of this desperate round, we (shocked viewers), are being stared at by a character. Could he be Vincent himself, addressing a desperate message to us?

Engravings, sources of inspiration for Vincent while he was interned

In 1879 and 1980, Vincent painted from the Hospice of Saint Rémy-de-Provence where he had requested to be interned. Lacking of subjects, he painted several canvases inspired by lithographs and wood engravings of drawings and paintings from Millet (First steps), Daumier (Men drinking), Delacroix (the good Samaritan), Rembrandt (the raising of Lazarus)... who were sent to him by Theo, his brother.

In his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent explains: ‘What you say about the copy after Millet, The evening, pleases me. The more I think about it the more I find that there’s justification for trying to reproduce things by Millet that he didn’t have the time to paint in oils. So working either on his drawings or the wood engravings, it’s not copying pure and simple that one would be doing.

It is rather translating into another language, the one of colours, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black.’

We can see that this is exactly what Vincent did when he interpreted Gustave Doré’s drawing Newgate – Exercise yard. On the site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we can see a facsimile of the book in which the pint inspiring Vincent was published. It is made from an original drawing by Gustave Doré, a French painter, lithographer and sculptor very renowned for his prints.

In reality, Gustave Doté engraved very little himself, generally entrusting his drawings to engravers for them to be carved and printed.The site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France indicates that this particular print is a wood print made by Héliodore Pisan. The later was a wood engraver of immense talent and one of the main and best of Gustave Doré’s interpreters.

I did not find the original drawing of Gustave Doré… but I learnt in the excellent blog 'Orion en aéroplane' that the Master, most of the time, directly drew and painted on the wood. Consequently, his original illustrations were destroyed as the engraver progressed in his carving! This is most probably what happened here and why I did not find any trace of the original drawing.

Here is an example of a drawing made by Gustave Doré on wood which has been partially carved by Héliodore Pisan. The work has not been completed and had been abandoned (for our enjoyment).

Drawing on woog by Gustave Doré partially engraved by Héliodore Pisan
« Et l'on acheva de bien laver Don Quichotte. » Drawing from Gustave Doré, partially engraved by Héliodore Pisan.

Thus, it is an engraver who served as a liaison between Gustave Doré and Van Gogh so as this moving painting could reach us.

Is the circle complete ? Not really…

In the round of inspiration, we discover that Gustave Doré’s drawing was engraved by Héliodore Pisan and painted by Van Gogh. In being a little nosier, we find out that that this moving painting inspired a scene from the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork orange… The Anthony Burgess foundation explains: 'When Alex is sent to prison, there is a scene of the prisoners stomping round a small yard in a tight circle. This is a recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s 1890 painting ‘Prisoners Exercising (after Doré). Gustave Doré’s original engraving shows a similar scene, albeit without Van Gogh’s use of colour.'

Gustave Doré's print and subsequent interpretations: in paint by Vincent Van Gogh and on film by Stanley Kubrick
Gustave Doré's print, Vincent Van Gogh's painting, a scene of Kubrick's film

A round is a moving circle which has no beginning and no end and the prisoners’ and the artists' ones cannot escape this rule…


Sources and further readings:


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