Van Gogh was allowed to roam the asylum, paint in the gardens and go on painting excursions to the surrounding countryside when accompanied by a guard, which was probably a greater privilege than the other residents were allowed. It
seems his care was not unsympathetic, but he wrote to Theo of the poor food, the lack of help and the ravings of his fellow patients. Throughout the year that he spent at Saint-Remy he suffered several serious attacks during which he
became violent towards others and himself, but in his lucid moments recognized that, despite his great unhappiness, he needed to remain there.
Many of the landscapes that he painted during this period were devoid of figures, which was probably the reality of the rural situation. However, in the winter of 1889 he painted this picture of The Olive Pickers, using simplified forms that echoed the work of his friend Gauguin. His use of colour for the last several years had been of specific symbolic importance to the artist, and used to suggest a mood or feeling, and now his imagery, too, began to acquire symbolic significance.