This iconic piece was painted partly as a joke by Van Gogh in early 1886, while he was studying at the art academy in Antwerp. Drawing skeletons was a standard exercise at the academy, but painting them was not part of the curriculum. The dark earth-tone colors are exemplary of his Dutch routes and painting style he took on early in his career, which drastically evolved into his vibrant and colorful work that he is known for today, once he moved to France.
It is believed that he must have made this painting at some other time outside of his lessons, most likely on his own or by himself. This work indicates that he had a good grasp of the human anatomy, as well as an ability to capture emotion, movement, and story in a painting, which were something his peers frequently criticized him about, such as Van Rappard after seeing the etching of "The Potato Eaters" by Van Gogh.