Géricault’s Portraits of the Insane

Géricault’s Portrait of a Kleptomaniac

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts is Théodore Géricault’s Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, one of five paintings originally part of a ten-painting commission.  The portrait, picturing as it does a man likely confined to a state asylum, serves as a touchstone for many of the social concerns present in the post-Napoleonic France of the 1820s: the duties of the state towards its citizens, the legitimacy of the psychiatry profession, the reform of prisons and madhouses, and the ethics of execution.  Beyond these concerns, which are primarily related to civil society in the new republic, Géricault’s portraits seem to solidify his reputation as a rabble-rouser, both politically and artistically.

The origins of the series has been inherited from Géricault’s cataloguer, Charles Clément, who described a set of ten paintings in the possession of Dr. Etienne-Jean Georget, a psychiatrist or, in the parlance of the day, an alienist, in Paris.  At the time of Dr. Georget’s death, the ten paintings were divided into two groups of five and purchased by his colleagues, Dr. Lachèze and Dr. Maréchal.  Dr. Maréchal, as Clément tells us, takes the works to Brittany where they are never seen again.  Clément, in correspondence with Louis Viardot who sees the five extant works in Baden-Baden, records the titles of these paintings in his catalogue: Monomanie du commandement militaire, Monomanie du vol des enfants, Monomanie du vol (see above), Monomanie du jeu, Monomanie de l’envie.

The art historical community is generally accepting of Clement’s account and Dr. Georget’s patronage.  How might have Géricault encountered Dr. Georget?  There are several possible scenarios.  In preparation for painting the Raft of the Medusa, Géricault had been in contact with a Dr. Savigny, who was present on the Medusa and had subsequently written a pamphlet denouncing the Bourbon government’s treatment of the surviving sailors, may have introduced him to Dr. Georget.  (A quick summary of the Medusa incident is here.)  Géricault had also rented a studio near Dr. Georget’s hospital for the duration of his work on the monumental canvas, and may have encountered the psychiatrist and his colleagues at the hospital.  It has also been suggested, though I don’t know with how much evidence, that Géricault was a patient of Dr. Georget’s.  The latter scenario seems the most fanciful, but is entirely in keeping with the myth-tradition of the tormented artist.  Among the English-language sources for Géricault’s portraits, Prendeville is the loudest dissenting voice, unconvinced that Dr. Georget is the “decisive and unambiguous” key to the works’ interpretation.

The psychiatric field and the treatment of the mentally ill experienced rapid development in the matter of several decades.  The earliest asylum in Europe was founded in Spain in 1425, and similar institutions appeared throughout the continent.  However, these institutions were rarely exclusive, and often hosted criminals, debtors, and senile people as well as those who we would now deem mentally ill.  Dr. Georget’s predecessors in the field, Dr. Pinel and Dr. Esquirol, were instrumental in delineating the various types of mental illnesses and providing specialized treatment and facilities for these patients.  Apart from the work of doctors such as these, there were various reform groups such as the Societe de la Morale Chretienne that agitated for better treatment of the mentally ill.  Their concerns were well-founded: frequently shackled, abused, and living in filth, the mentally ill were also subject to ridicule through the practice of asylum tourism.  Asylum tourism is exactly what it sounds like: asylums were open to the public (for a fee) so that visitors could gawk at the strange behaviors and miserable conditions of asylum occupants.  London’s Bedlam is the most famous location for this phenomenon, but Vienna’s Narrenturm and the Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière in Paris also participated in this practice.

While depictions of socially marginalized people had existed in art for centuries, they were rarely the primary focus of a work.  Commissioned images of psychiatry patients, however, were part and parcel of the reform movement.  Dr. Pinel acquired the services of engravers to record his patients’ faces and heads, while his successor, Dr. Esquirol, commissioned Tardieu to do similar work.  Dr. Georget’s commission falls into this tradition, but is also profoundly removed from these artistic predecessors.  Géricault, apart from being a far more skilled artist, has rendered his subjects with far more sensitivity than is present in previous examples.  As Boime writes, these works are “free from the sensationalism of earlier portrayals,” which perhaps exaggerated certain physical features.  According to Kromm, Géricault’s portraits “produce a direct, sensitive exploration of character without the derisive overtones usually found in images of the mad.”  The subjects, averting their gaze and seemingly absorbed in their interior worlds, are rendered with softness and pathos, in the deep browns and neutral backgrounds associated with the great Spanish portraiture of the 17th century.

Both Dr. Georget and Géricault were both complex public figures in 19th century France.  Géricault’s political leanings are well-documented.  Kallmyer tells us that Géricault championed many liberal causes, such as the shipwrecked sailors of the Medusa, the republicans in Spain and Latin America, the abolition of slavery, and the end of the inquisition.  Dr. Georget, moving beyond the initial concerns of Pinel and Esquirol, sought to define mental illness within the criminal code of post-Napoleonic France.  Specifically, he was interested in banning the execution of the mentally ill and instead confining them to an asylum.  His goal angered people within the Civil Service as well as religious conservatives.  Georget and Géricault were not alone in their concerns.  For example, such groups as Societe de la Morale Chretienne opposed the Bourbon’s judicial system, which they saw embracing “execution in the interests of despotism.”

The Dr. George-Géricault connection is not, however, universally accepted.  At least one historian writing in English, Prendeville, rejects the idea of a Georget commission, instead arguing it more plausible that Esquirol sought the skills of Géricault.  Furthermore, the “monomanie” title assigned to the works by Viardot did not become a common term until after the deaths of both Géricault and Georget, so the term is not specifically tied to Georget’s psychiatric work.

Géricault’s portraits of the insane are perhaps not as mysterious or as ghoulish as they might first seem.  The macabre associations of Goya’s Yard with Lunatics or the artist’s earlier sketches of cadavers create a visual context for contemporary views of madness, Géricault’s series stands quite separately from these works.  The lingering mystery, it seems, is the location of the remaining five works.

Works Cited:

Boime, Albert.  “Portraying Monomaniacs to Service the Alienist’s Monomania: Géricault and Georget.” Oxford Art Journal 14 (1991): 79-91.

Athanassouglou-Kallmyer, Nina.  “Géricault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold.”  The Art Bulletin 74 (1992): 599-618.

Klein, Peter K.  “Insanity and the Sublime: Aesthetics and Theories of Mental Illness in Goya’s Yard with Lunatics and Related Works.”  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 61 (1998): 198-252.

Kromm, Jane.  “‘Marianne’ and the Madwomen.”  Art Journal 46 (1987): 299-304.

Miller, Margaret.  “Géricault’s Paintings of the Insane.”  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4 (1941-1942): 151-163.

Prendeville, Brendan.  “The Features of Insanity, as Seen by Géricault and by Büchner.”  Oxford Art Journal 18 (1995): 96-115.


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