In my last blog I looked at some works by Théodore Géricault. I examined his paintings which featured horses and the military and his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa which I had examined in detail in my blog of June 10th 2011. I finally looked at a highly erotic work which he painted for his own delectation around about the same time of the Medusa work. In this blog I want to look at what I consider as his finest works, a series of portraits of men and women who had serious mental issues.
Having completed The Raft of the Medusa around 1819 he exhibited it at that year’s Salon under the title Scène de Naufrage (Scene of Shipwreck). It was hailed as the star piece of that year’s Salon and was well received by the French public including Louis XVIII himself, who had sponsored the exhibition. Such was the fame of this work that Géricault was invited to London in June 1820 to exhibit the painting at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. It drew in crowds from all over the country and by the time the exhibition ended at the end of 1820, more than forty thousand people had come to view the masterpiece and as Géricault had negotiated a fee based on the number of people who paid to see his work it is thought that he walked away with twenty thousand francs and so it was just as well the French government would not countenance the purchase of the work when the 1819 Salon closed!
A year later, at the end of 1821, Géricault left London and returned to Paris. It was at this time that he embarked on a series of ten portraits of people who were suffering from what is termed monomania. Monomania is an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing. It is a type of partial insanity. The word was first used by the French psychiatrist Jean Étienne Esquirol around 1810 and was a notion typified by the presence of an expansive fixed idea in which the person’s mind was diseased and deranged in some aspects but otherwise normal in others. So why would Géricault focus on this type of person and who commissioned the ten small works?
The man who commissioned the paintings is known to be Étienne-Jean Georget. Georget was an intern at Salpêtrière, the women’s asylum in Paris, and later the medical supervisor at a private asylum in Ivry. As to how the two men met is still up for debate amongst art historians. One theory is that Géricault was treated by the psychiatrist. He had been suffering from depression accompanied by paranoid delusions which culminated in a nervous breakdown around 1819. Another possibility was that the two met during one of Géricault’s visits to the hospital morgue where he would go to acquire dissected limbs which he often used in his preliminary studies for major works, such as his Raft of the Medusa painting. It could have been that Georget had commissioned the work as he believed such an artistic task would help Géricault recover from his own mental dark period. When Géricault completed the work he gave them to the psychiatrist as a way of expressing his thanks. Some art historians however believe that it was a simple commission, the result of which would help Georget in his studies into monomania. However it should not be forgotten that Géricault had an intense interest in the causes and results of mental instability for his grandfather and one of his uncles had died insane. At the time Géricault was formulating his painting The Raft of the Medusa, which featured a group of men adrift on a raft after the sinking of their vessel Medusa, he knew that the key to success would be an authentic depiction of the terrified and dying seamen. Géricault portrayed the men on the raft as dead or dying, desperately trying to signal for help. To achieve a sense of realism he had contacted a variety of medical specialists. His principal concern had been to gain access to human bodies in various states of putrefaction, to ensure the genuineness of the finished painting and it could have been that he also talked to the likes of Georget about the psychological trauma suffered by the victims of the Medusa shipwreck. It is known that he interviewed the surgeon, Henry Savigny, who had been serving on the vessel when the shipwreck occurred and the doctor, at the time, had been putting down in print his experiences and the way it mentally affected the stricken crew members.
Whatever the circumstances were we know the five paintings I am going to feature initially belonged to Georget. He, like Géricault died when he was in his early thirties. I mention five works and yet one of Géricault’s early biographers, Charles Clément, talked of there being ten portraits. However, only five remain. So did the missing five feature five other mental patients? What is currently believed is that Georget had asked Géricault to paint a further five works featuring the same five people at a later time so as to highlight the change in their appearance. For Georget this was the study of physiognomy, an art of judging character from the face and phrenology, which would link the external form of the cranium as indication of mental faculties. Simply put it was the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance. We have no names as to the sitters, just the monomania that is afflicting each of them. In his book On Madness, published in 1820, Georget is most definite that madness can be seen in the face of the afflicted. He wrote:
“…In general the idiot’s face is stupid, without meaning; the face of the manic patient is as agitated as his spirit, often distorted and cramped; the moron’s facial characteristics are dejected and without expression; the facial characteristics of the melancholic are pinched, marked by pain or extreme agitation; the monomaniacal king has a proud, inflated expression; the religious fanatic is mild, he exhorts by casting his eyes at the heavens or fixing them on the earth; the anxious patient pleads, glancing sideways, etc…”
Certainly harsh and in some ways unfeeling words from the psychiatrist and are in complete contrast to the sympathetic way Géricault depicted the sitters.
The five surviving portraits are entitled Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command; A Kleptomaniac; Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy; A Woman Addicted to Gambling and A Child Snatcher. It seems likely that the featured women were inmates of the women’s hospital Salpêtrière, while the men were chosen from the many male inmates of the male asylums of Charenton and Bicȇtre.
The first of the five I am featuring Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy, which is housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyons. She avopids our gaze. Her eyes are red-rimmed. She has suffered and is probably still suffering. Her case notes stated that she suffered from “envy obsessions” and maybe the slightest hint of a green tint to her face was the artist’s way to signify her obsession with envy.
Next we have a man who suffers from delusions of grandeur and the portrait is entitled A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command which is in the Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur in Switzerland. The man in this particular portrait believed he was Napoleon and maybe Géricault believed that it was not just his sitter who had delusions of grandeur but it was targeted at the man himself, Napoleon, who may also suffered a similar delusional belief in himself as the head of the French Empire. One needs to remember my previous blog when I featured some of Géricault’s military paintings. Maybe now, like many French people after the defeat of Napoleon, he had misgivings about the glory of battle. It is a very sympathetic portrayal of the old man and there is an air of sadness about his demeanour. He looks like a defeated man and could well be an allegory for a defeated nation.
My third offering is the painting entitled Portrait of a Kleptomaniac which is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. It is a strange depiction. Just by looking at him we know there is something wrong in his life both physically and mentally. He is dishevelled. His sallow skin tone alerts us to him being ill. His beard is unkempt and his hair is uncombed and messy. Look at his face. Look at the redness of his left cheek which looks swollen as if he has been involved in a fight. He stares out at us, or maybe past us, but we have no idea what he is thinking. It is an empty gaze. Géricault probably had no idea what his sitter was thinking but he made sure he captured every small detail about the man and maybe he wants us to decide on what has brought this man to the asylum.
The fourth painting is entitled A Woman suffering from and Obsessive Gambling Disorder and can be found at the Louvre in Paris. The old woman in the painting avoids stares out at us but it is a blank stare. One has no idea what she is thinking. She is lost in her own world, a world she is resigned to but does not enjoy. Her eyes are red-rimmed probably brought on by the amount of mental and physical pain she has had to endure. Her mouth is tense. You can see in her facial expression that she is disturbed by something but with what?
The final portrait by Géricault is entitled A Child Snatcher. Before us we have a man who looks distinctly unhappy with his lot in life. He is dressed in old brown clothes and has a dishevelled look about him. His face is haggard. His life has not been easy. The dark background give us the distinct impression that this man lives in a world of isolation. It is as if, as a resident of a mental institution, he has been cut adrift by society. He avoids our gaze and looks to the side in a somewhat shifty manner. Although we would compartmentalize this type of portrait as one of realism there is an element of romanticism in the way Géricault does not want us to judge the sitter. Looking at the man we would not know his crime but the title of Child Snatcher tells us all we need to know about a man who in the present day would be probably be classed as a paedophile.
If you think that the five portraits were very disturbing and yet very real, I will leave you with one other shocking portrait. It is the last self-portrait by Géricault, which he completed when close to death. What a terrible sight it must have been as he looked in the mirror as he worked on his own portrait. Remember this was a young man in his early thirties.
The five existing portraits were discovered unframed and unstretched by Louis Viardot , the husband of the famous French mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot . Viardot was an artist himself, and a great admirer of Gericault, and so he recognised the style of the works as that of Géricault. Géricault’s biographer Charles Clément researched the origin of the works and found that they had all belonged to a certain Dr Lacheze, to whom they had been bequeathed by another medical man, the psychiatrist Dr Etienne Georget.
Théodore Géricault died in January 1824, aged 32 and is buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. This series of portraits featuring mentally disturbed people was completed by an artist who also suffered depression during his later life. In 1810, he wrote to his best friend, Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy:
“…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…”
Whereas Dr Georget was more clinical and some would say somewhat cold-hearted about his desire to have the portraits of these people we can see in the way Géricault depicted them with sympathy and even empathy.