Gericault, Theodore (French, 1791-1824)

The Woman with Gambling Mania

Reference Type:
c. 1822
Théodore Géricault wanted to show the truth of life, and as part of that quest explored the theme of mental illness in a series of ten portraits, only five of which still exist today. He spent time in hospitals observing “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.” (quoted in; original source Clement, Charles, Géricault, Etude Biographique et Critique, Paris 1867, 3rd ed., New York, 1974, pp.130) Géricault believed that the face reflected the condition of the body, including the effects of madness. At this time, mental illness was seen as a personal failing, and individuals who suffered from it were considered responsible for their actions. Etienne-Jean Georget, a psychiatrist in charge of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, was one of the earliest physicians to advocate reforms in the system that would prevent the insane from being treated as criminals: that an individual’s mental state should be considered in court proceedings; and that persons committing crimes while delusional be sent to psychiatric hospitals rather than prisons. It seems that Georget commissioned the series of portraits from Géricault to illustrate what the artist thought was the essence of monomania and to hopefully change people’s ideas about the mentally ill by showing them as fellow human beings rather than as monsters. Viewers were stunned when the portraits were shown publicly—not only were the insane not deformed freaks, but they looked almost like “normal” people. Even so, the first response was overwhelmingly negative. Although the subjects appear to have tried to make themselves look as nice as possible, and nothing in the portraits implies that they are mental patients, their faces nonetheless overwhelm everything else about their appearance. None look at the artist or interact with him in any significant way, creating a feeling of remoteness. This psychological distance is enhanced by the lack of specific setting and no accompanying objects to tell us anything about them. Géricault expresses no judgment or sympathy—but does grant them a certain amount of respect. Géricault’s attitude might have derived in part from his family history, and the fact that he himself sometimes suffered from depression and paranoid delusions. His grandfather had died in an asylum, and four generations on his mother’s side had suffered from some form of madness. It appears that the artist himself suffered some sort of breakdown in 1819, which perhaps took him to Dr. Georget. Notes by Mariann Smith
History of Medicine
Mental Disorders
Mental Illness
Musee du Louvre, Paris