Géricault’s art of insanity

Caitlin Meyer
University of St. Andrews, Scotland (Fall 2013)

 

Now I am disoriented and confused. I try in vain to find support; nothing seems solid, everything escapes me, deceives me. Our earthly hopes and desires are only vain fancies, our successes mere mirages that we try to grasp,” scrawled Théodore Géricault in a letter to his friend Dedreux-Dorcy in 1810.1 A master Romantic painter, his stylistic genius belied a strong undercurrent of instability. Unknown to many, his madness threaded through four generations of his family; and he lived in a society harboring little sympathy for lunacy.

Portrait of a woman addicted to gambling, 1822
Théodore Géricault
Oil on canvas
72 x 58 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

Ten portraits of the insane, only five of which survive, were Géricault’s reaction to his illness: A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command; A Kleptomaniac; A Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy; A Woman Addicted to Gambling (Fig.1); and A Child Snatcher. These paintings confronted society’s perception of the insane and tested the stereotypes constructed about them. Driven by concerns in altering attitudes to disease and an appetite for controversial art, his work challenged the prevailing stigma towards the mentally ill.

Géricault’s recalcitrant style spanned his short 32 years, during which he pushed the boundaries of art and spearheaded liberalism and radicalism in it. Renowned for his provocative Raft of the Medusa, he also crafted beautiful and controversial stills and drawings of military themes.2 In his rebellion, he turned his attention to the streets of France when most of his peers remained focused on classical ancient Greece and Rome. He became absorbed by the barbarity of lower class existence, finding here a deeper, darker, rawer focus, to “involv[e] himself with nature, sane or mad, [hoping] to get at the trut[h].”3 He desired to capture the irony of a populace inhabiting the same environment as he, but assuming none of his privileges. He endeavored to portray society as he saw it, not in the Neo-Classical style, but still heroic because of its stark and morbid realism.

In his pursuit of realism, Géricault first ventured into the portraiture of the mentally ill. In the name of art, he obtained a macabre collection of decapitated human heads and limbs from a nearby hospital and painted these bits and appendages in various positions, alluding to perverse acts of coitus.3 Such scenarios were curiously compelling for Géricault—he was seemingly impervious to their disturbing effect and spent time in local hospitals to “follow with ardent curiosity all phases of suffering, from the first seizure to the final agony, and to study the traces they imprint on the human body.”3 He believed that the effect of madness could be seen directly on the face—similar to Franz Joseph Gall’s head-shape pseudoscience of phrenology—and that the face revealed the inner character and condition of the human body, especially in madness and at the instant of death.4

In a kind of reaction against enlightenment rationality, Géricault and other Romantic artists began to be caught up in painting “insane” subjects. They painted kleptomaniacs, child snatchers, and the mentally ill,3 this at a time when mental illness was understood as an individual’s failing for which he was held personally responsible, stigmatized, kept from seeking help, or simply jailed.5

The psychiatrist Etienne-Jean Georget, in charge of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, was one of the first to instigate reforms preventing the treatment of the insane as criminals.6 He insisted that a medical/psychiatric opinion be employed during court proceedings, and argued that persons committing crimes whilst delusional or mad should not be condemned as criminals but confined to the insane asylum for observation and treatment. This radical move brought derision from the conservative legal establishment, but resulted in convicted insane persons being confined to asylums, where psychiatrists also had the opportunity to test their theories.6

It was Georget who commissioned Géricault’s portraits.6 The purpose was to illustrate what the psychiatrist considered to be the essence of monomania—the fleeting expression, the transitory gesture, and the inward and self-conscious gaze. To illustrate his ideas he required images that would humanize the mad, to arouse empathy in the viewer and question the very nature of this madness.7 Margaret Miller wrote “just as the Géricault pictures reveal his subjects in all the understandableness of their dilemma…so does Georget correct popular misconceptions of the insane and emphasize the comparative normalcy of their life and conduct.”8

Under Georget’s patronage Géricault painted the misshapen and the broken: lunatics, neurotics, obsessives, addicts, and kleptomaniacs. They were depicted not as circus freaks or dramatically nightmarish, but just as they were: essentially human. The enormous paradox of the “insanely normal” stunned Géricault’s audience. Géricault had discarded the stereotype of the mad as possessed or ludicrous creatures, shocking his viewers and confronting their prejudice in order to change them.5 But despite the skillful portraiture, critics were horrified by his beastly representation of humanity. When two of the ten paintings were exhibited in 1887, a writer for the Gazette des Beaux Arts called them “tombée à la bestialité” (fall to bestiality).3 Disgust was the initial knee-jerk reaction, the instinctive response before a second look could be taken.

To accommodate this reaction Géricault adapted the style of his work. In his portrait A Woman Addicted to Gambling we view her from slightly above, thus placing the observer (painter, psychiatrist, beholder) in a position of power and authority, almost as a reassurance or safe escarpment from which to appraise. From this vantage point, one can appreciate that the sitter is not at all frightening or repulsive. Though the features are waxy, her facial statement is immobile and absorbed. The stillness is in contrast to the looseness and fluidity of the brush stroke. It is at this juncture, between stillness and tempestuousness, that the viewer accesses the reality of the suffering of this individual. While her outward facial appearance is immobile and stolid, achieved by a heavy trowelling of thick oil paint, the remainder of the portrait is painted with speedy brush strokes. It is perhaps the contradictions in the application of the paint that conveys the characteristic contradictions of insanity. We see the transitory nature of the condition of monomania, her drifting between reason and unreason, her isolation and introspection. Her visage epitomizes the very nature of the society from which she was formed and has now been isolated. She lacks the criminal intent of the insane as depicted by other artists.6

In the 19th century, it was common to draw patients before and after treatment, to show its effects on the patient. One critic argues that this approach influenced the practice of Georget, and that there was no driving force or originality on the part of Géricault.6 Yet Géricault allows his subjects a telling sense of themselves. They appear to have made an effort with their appearance and Géricault has allowed them this individuality, enhancing it by carefully detailing items about their clothing: ribbons, bonnets, medals, or hats. Yet these details are almost insignificant and totally subsumed by the power in the molding of the facial features in each painting. Apparent is the obvious unease of the sitters, their apparent remoteness and withdrawn gazes. There is no discourse between painter and subjects or between the subjects and the viewer. They seem simply to exist. It is this remoteness that conveys a kind of truth. The painter depicts his subjects as they are, without indication of their condition.

What is revealed is a “state of mind,” which, though disordered and clinically classifiable, emphasizes rather than obliterates individuality. Géricault does not put the subjects of his paintings in surroundings that might indicate their social status or betray their forced segregation. They perform no particular action that might characterize their disease, and isolate them from the experience of the viewer.

What is startling in the work of Géricault is the almost complete lack of device and moral judgment.2 The viewer is moved not by the artist’s sympathetic rendering of his subject matter but rather by the complete lack of sentiment. The paintings in this series are objective rather than sentimental but show empathy and respect: they appear like faithful representations of each individual rather than romanticized or melodramatic portrayals of the insane. Their meticulous objectivity is in line with the increasing application of medical science to the clinical observation and study of mental illness.

The peculiar hypnotic power that his mentally ill subjects have over the viewer seems to parallel Géricault’s fascination with disease and death, with mental aberration and irrational states.7 This is seen in the The Raft of the Medusa, and also in the physically, morally and psychologically incarcerated human beings whom he studied by visiting institutions for the criminally insane where he himself spent time as a patient.2

Though Georget had financed the project, Géricault was significantly invested in it due to his family history of insanity and his own fragile disposition— depression accompanied by paranoid delusions.1 During 1819 he was described as believing that bargemen and people on the riverboats were enemies spying on him and plotting his ruin.1 A strain of madness ran through four generations of Géricault’s family on his mother’s side. His grandfather had been confined to an asylum in 1773 and died insane in 1779. An uncle and a cousin were also diagnosed as imbalanced, and Géricault’s own son died in circumstances suggesting he was not of sound mind.1 Géricault seems to have suffered some form of breakdown in 1819 and around this time may have sought the advice of Dr. Georget.

Géricault’s psychopathic disposition, sometimes presenting as an eerie calm, is embodied in his small and intensely beautiful drawing General Letellier After his Suicide (1810). Géricault called on a friend who had killed himself, and without melodrama immediately made a drawing of the scene with unnerving lucidity and impartiality of vision.10 In this drawing there is no tragedy, no blood nor gaping wound. Simply the dead man propped up by pillows and the gun, almost obscured by the sheets of the bed.2 This unsettling reaction makes one wonder about Géricault’s social situation—did his peculiarities make him a loner, kept afloat in society only by his artistic genius? Such a first-hand experience of social slighting would provide strong personal incentive for alleviating disease stigma.9

“[Géricault’s] depictions of insanity are notable for being among the first paintings to humanize the mentally ill and to depict them as recognizable persons upon who a terrible fate has been visited.”8 Aware more keenly than any how insanity could cloud a person but define him,11 having found help himself through Georget, he would want to enable others through treatment, to “lessen the plight of the insane and promote the profession of psychiatry.”8

Théodore Géricault’s paintings were not entirely intended as instruction in the medical diagnosis of insanity—they are also a private meditation by an artist who had personal experience with unreason and who simply found the subject profound and metaphoric. Perhaps he simply wanted to reflect on the subject or illuminate it. But through his adversity he urged an essential change. To this day, societal stigma still enshrouds psychiatric disorders and century-old biases persist. But those who called for change helped inspire others to advance the treatment of the mentally ill.

 

References

  1. Chenique, B., On the Far Left of Géricault, Paris: Edition de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, No. 79, 1999, pp.5
  2. Eitner, Lorenz E.A., Géricault. His Life and Work, Orbis Publishing, London, 1983, pp.242
  3. Clement, Charles, Géricault, Etude Biographique et Critique, Paris 1867, 3rd ed., New York, 1974, pp.130
  4. Georget, Jean Etienne, De la folie, Paris: Crevot, 1820, pp.133
  5. Crocker, J., Major, B., & Steele, C., “Social stigma”, Handbook of Social Psychology, 1998; 4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 504-553
  6. Boime, Albert, The Oxford Art Journal, ‘Portraying Monomaniacs to Service the Alienist’s Monomania: Géricault and Georget’, vol.14, no.1, 1991, pp.79-91
  7. Guilbaut, S., Ryan, M., Watson, S., (Eds), “Theodore Géricault. The Alien Body. Tradition in Chaos”, Exhibition Catalogue, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1997, pp.4
  8. Miller, Margaret, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, ‘Géricault’s Paintings of the Insane’, London, 1940-1941, Vol.IV, pp.151-163
  9. Bogousslavsky J., “Hysteria after Charcot: Back to the Future”. Front Neurology Neuroscience Journal, 2010, Issue 29, pp. 137-61
  10. Lavatar, J.K., Essays of Physiognomy, translated by Thomas Holcroft, London, 1753, pp.171. Lavatar’s ideas concerning the ‘congruity’ of the human organism, and hence the symptomatic significance of all its forms, motions and expressions were fundamental to the thinking of medical science of his own and succeeding generations
  11. Gilman, Sander L., Disease and Representation. Images from Madness to AIDS, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1988 pp.26

 


 

CAITLIN MEYER is a third year Canadian medical student studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Born in British Columbia, he graduated from Brentwood College School in Mill Bay in 2010.

 

Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2016 – Volume 8, Special Issue, and  Fall 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 4
Hektorama  | Art Essays