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After The Raft of the Medusa

At the end of 1821 the leading Romantic painter in France, Thodore


Gricault, returned from a year long stay in England where crowds
had flocked to see his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa displayed
in the Egyptian Hall in Pall Mall, London. Despite the success of the
exhibition, the French government still refused to buy the painting
and his own prodigious spending meant that he was strapped for
cash and in no position to embark on another ambitious and
expensive large scale project like The Raft. His health too was soon
to suffer. On his return to France, a riding accident led to
complications, causing a tumor to develop on the spine that proved
fatal. He died, aged 32, in January 1824.

Thodore Gricault, A Woman Addicted to Gambling, 1822, oil on canvas, 77 x 64 cm (Muse du


Louvre, Paris)

Perhaps the greatest achievement of his last years were his portraits
of the insane. There were ten of them originally. Only five have
survived: A Woman Addicted to Gambling, A Child Snatcher, A
Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy, A Kleptomaniac; and A Man
Suffering from Delusions of Military Command.

No information is available for those that have been lost. According


to the artists first biographer, Charles Clment, Gricault painted
them after returning from England for tienne-Jean Georget (1795-
1828), the chief physician of the Salptrire, the womens asylum in
Paris. The paintings were certainly in Georgets possession when he
died.

Three Theories for the Commission


How the two men met is not known for sure. Possibly Georget
treated Gricault as a patient, or perhaps they met in the Beaujon
Hospital, from whose morgue Gricault had taken home dissected
limbs to serve as studies for his figures in The Raft. What is more
debated though, is Georgets role in the production of the paintings.
There are three main theories. The first two link the portraits to the
psychological toll taken out of Gricault whilst producing his great
masterpiece and the nervous breakdown he is believed to have
suffered in the autumn following its completion in 1819. The first
theory runs that Georget helped him to recover from this episode
and that the portraits were produced for and given to the doctor as
a gesture of thanks; the second puts forward that Georget, as the
artists physician, encouraged Gricault to paint them as an early
form of art therapy; and the third is that Gricault painted them for
Georget after his return from England to assist his studies in mental
illness.

It is this last that is generally held to be the most likely. Stylistically,


they belong to the period after his stay in England, two years after
his breakdown. Also, the unified nature of the series, in terms of
their scale, composition and color scheme suggest a clearly defined
commission, while the medical concept of monomania shapes the
whole design.

Early Modern Psychiatry


A key figure in early modern psychiatry in France was Jean-Etienne-
Dominique Esquirol (1772-1840), whose main area of interest was
monomania, a term no longer in clinical use, which described a
particular fixation leading sufferers to exhibit delusional behavior,
imagining themselves to be a king, for example.

Thodore Gricault, Portait of a Child Snatcher, 1822, oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm (Museum of Fine
Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts)

Esquirol, who shared a house with his friend and protg Georget,
was a great believer in the now largely discredited science of
physiognomy, holding that physical appearances could be used to
diagnose mental disorders. With this in mind, he had over 200
drawings made of his patients, a group of which, executed by
Georges-Francoise Gabriel, were exhibited at the Salon of 1814. As
an exhibitor himself that year, it seems highly likely that Gricault
would have seen them there.

Georgets work developed on Esquirols. An Enlightenment figure,


Esquirol rejected moral or theological explanations for mental
illness, seeing insanity, neither as the workings of the devil nor as
the outcome of moral decrepitude, but as an organic affliction, one
that, like any other disease, can be identified by observable physical
symptoms. In his book On Madness, published in 1820, following
Esquirol, Georget turns to physiognomy to support this theory:

In general the idiots face is stupid, without meaning; the face of the
manic patient is as agitated as his spirit, often distorted and
cramped; the morons 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.

The clumsy language herethe idiots face is stupidseems a


world away from Gricaults extraordinarily sensitive paintings, a
point that begs the question whether Gricault was doing more than
simply following the good doctors orders in producing the series,
but instead making his own independent enquiries.
Thodore Gricault, Portait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena), 1822, oil on
canvas, 72 x 58 cm (Muse des Beaux-Arts, Lyons)

Gricault had many reasons to be interested in psychiatry, starting


with his own family: his grandfather and one of his uncles had died
insane. His experiences while painting The Raft must also have left
their mark. The Medusas surgeon, J.B. Henry Savigny, at the time
Gricault interviewed him, was writing an account of the
psychological impact the experience had had on his fellow
passengers and, of course, there was Gricaults own mental
breakdown in 1819. It seems only natural then that he would be
drawn to this new and exciting area of scientific study.

Alternatively, some critics argue that Gricaults work is a


propaganda exercise for Georget, designed to demonstrate the
importance of psychiatrists in detecting signs of mental illness. In
their very subtleties they show just how difficult this can be,
requiring a trained eye such as Georgets to come to the correct
diagnosis. According to Albert Boime, the paintings were also used
to demonstrate the curative effects of psychiatric treatment. If the
five missing paintings were ever found, he argues, they would depict
the same charactersbut after treatmentshowing their improved
state, much like before and after photographs in modern day
advertising.

This, of course, is impossible to prove or disprove. What is more


challenging is Boimes general criticisms of early psychiatry which,
he argues, by classifying, containing and observing people was
effective only in silencing the voices of the mentally ill, rendering
them invisible and therefore subject to abuse. The fact that the
sitters of the paintings are given no names, but are defined only by
their illnesses would seem to confirm this view and, for that reason,
many modern viewers of the paintings do feel disconcerted when
looking at them.

The Portraits
The five surviving portraits are bust length and in front view, without
hands. The canvases vary in dimensions but the heads are all close
to life-size.
Thodore Gricault, Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, 1822, oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm (Museum of Fine
Arts, Ghent)

The viewpoint is at eye level for the three men but from above for
the women, indicating that the paintings were executed in different
places. It seems likely that the women were painted in the womens
hospital Salptrire, while the men were selected from among the
inmates of Charenton and Bictre. None of the sitters are named;
they are identified by their malady. None look directly at the viewer,
contributing to an uneasy sense of distractedness in their gazes that
can be read as stillness, as though they are lost in their own
thoughts, or as disconnectedness from the process in which they are
involved. These are not patrons and have had no say in how they
are depicted.

Each is shown in three-quarter profile, some to the left, some to the


right. The pose is typical of formal, honorific portraits, effecting a
restrained composition that does not make it apparent that they are
confined in asylums. There is no evidence of the setting in the
backgrounds either, which are cast in shadow, as are most of their
bodies, drawing the focus largely on their faces.

Thodore Gricault, Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command, 1822, oil on
canvas, 81 x 65 cm (Sammlung Oskar Reinhart, Winterth

The dark coloring creates a sombre atmosphere, evocative of


brooding introspection. Their clothing lends them a degree of
personal dignity, giving no indication as to the nature of their
conditions, the one exception being the man suffering from
delusions of military grandeur who wears a medallion on his chest, a
tasseled hat and a cloak over one shoulder, which point to his
delusions. The medallion has no shine to it and the string that it
hangs from looks makeshift and worn.

The paintings were executed with great speed, entirely from life and
probably in one sitting. Critics often remark on the painterly quality
of the work, the extraordinary fluency of brushwork, in contrast with
Gricaults early more sculptural style, suggesting that the erratic
brushwork is used to mirror the disordered thoughts of the patients.
In places it is applied in almost translucent layers, while in others it
is thicker creating highly expressive contrasts in textures.

Romantic Scientists
What perhaps strikes one most about the portraits is the
extraordinary empathy we are made to feel for these poor souls,
who might not strike us immediately as insane, but who certainly
exhibit outward signs of inward suffering.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822, oil on paper laid on board, 47.6 x 57.5 cm (Tate Britain)

In bringing the sensitivity of a great artist to assist scientific enquiry,


Gricault was not alone among Romantic painters. John Constables
cloud studies, for example, were exactly contemporary with the
portraits and provide an interesting parallel.

Both artists capture brilliantly the fleeting moment, the shifting


movements in Constables cumulus, stratus, cirrus and nimbus, in
Gricault the complex play of emotions on the faces of the insane.
Not since the Renaissance has art illustrated so beautifully the
concerns of the scientific domain; in Gricaults case teaching those
early psychiatrists, we might be tempted to think, to look on their
patients with a more human gaze.