19 August 2013

mental health mondays :: the face of insanity

french romantic painter theodore gericault was probably best known in his time for a painting called "the raft of the medusa", which was not only a richly detailed and haunting image, but also an extremely topical one, as it dealt with a much-discussed story at the time.

however, later in life, gericault turned more to portraiture and was commissioned by one dr. etienne-jean georget, a psychiatrist or, as he would have been known at that time, an "alienist". georget himself is an interesting character, who helped identify different types of monomania [exactly what it sounds like: singular obsession], such as religious, sexual and homicidal. he also theorised that certain among the insane could not be held responsible for their actions and felt that there should be a ban on executing the mentally ill, supporting instead the idea that they should be confined to an asylum.

georget's commission was for gericault to paint a series of portraits- ten were apparently made in all- of different patients at his asylum. when georget died, the portraits were split between two associates of his. five of them disappeared to brittany and have never been seen again. the remaining five were apparently taken to germany, where they were apparently found and catalogued under very basic names. they have found their way into various galleries around europe and offer a fascinating glimpse at some of the era's forgotten people.

at the time, psychiatry was in its infancy, as were the notions of societal responsibility to care for the poor and unfortunate. having a young and sometimes controversial artist create these poignant images was not merely an artistic exercise, but a political one. previously, if the mentally deranged had been shown at all, it was as an object of ridicule, whereas gericault's portraits invite quiet contemplation, treating their subjects as afflicted with a real illness.

here are images of the five surviving portraits:

woman suffering from obsessive jealousy

a kleptomaniac

man suffering from delusions of military command

woman addicted to gambling
a child snatcher
ironically, there are many who theorise that the "commission" was in fact an early form of art therapy imposed on patient gericault by his physician georget after the artist suffered a breakdown in 1819. gericault's grandfather had died in a madhouse, which hints that it mental illness may have run in gericault's family.

the artist remained silent on the subject for the remainder of his life which, sadly, was not long. he died of complications from horse-riding accidents combined with a  chronic lung infection at the age of 33. four years later he was followed by the doctor, etienne-jean georget, also felled by a lung infection, also 33 at the time of his death.

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