Vincent greatly desired to gain more experience drawing from nude models. He had drawn a large number of people in their work clothes in Etten but was convinced that more practice with nudes would improve his knowledge of anatomy and benefit his work. He had trouble finding women or men willing to model for him, though, and studying at the academy provided a solution.
On 18 January 1886, Vincent enrolled on a drawing course in antique sculpture run by the artist Frans Vinck. Vinck had studied with Henri Leys, who Vincent greatly admired. Vincent also took two weeks of painting lessons from Charles Verlat but was subsequently advised to spend some time concentrating on drawing.
Vincent’s drawing style created a sensation at the academy: it was unlike anything people had seen before. He enjoyed his time there at first and noticed an improvement in his work, but after barely three weeks, he had had enough. He found "people at the academy" hateful and looked for ways to avoid discord.
Vincent made a drawing of a classical statue of the Roman general Julius Caesar Germanicus for a competition. He expected that it would place last because it deviated from the norm; this had happened to him at the academy in Brussels. Vincent wrote:
“But I saw the drawing that will be considered to be the best being done — I was sitting just behind — and it’s correct, it’s anything you like, but it’s dead and so are all those drawings that I saw.”
Vincent was critical of the art school and its teaching methods. In his opinion, students were learning an incorrect use of colour that was not "real" or "lifelike". In this period, Vincent thought about going to Paris so he could be with his brother Theo and paint nude models more easily.
Vincent probably painted Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette during his brief time at art school in Antwerp; the instructors there used a skeleton to teach students about human anatomy.