Theodore Gericault and the Portraits of the Insane

"Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena)" 1822

“Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena)” 1822

Theodore Gericault was a French painter and a pivotal part of the Romantic movement in art. One source, the Encyclopedia Britannica even states that Gericault was a “painter who exerted a seminal influence on the development of Romantic art in France.” He had a flamboyant and passionate personality which can be seen influencing his works of art. His paintings were controversial and daring which bodes well for Romantic artists. Gericault was largely self- taught although he did receive some studio training and studied English sporting art(additional information in video below) from the artist Carle Vernet. His first interests in sporting art most likely came about because Gericault was an avid horseman and many of his paintings have English sport as subject matter.  Gericault also studied classical figures and composition with Pierre Guerin, who was also the teacher of Eugene Delacroix; it is said that Delacroix found Gericault to be a huge influence in his artistic career. When Gericault traveled to Florence and Rome in 1816 to 1817, he was profoundly influenced by Michelangelo and Baroque art. This influence can be seen in the sculpted figures and clean lines he uses while his later works are more painterly with loose brushstrokes.

Gericault’s last major works were discovered nearly fifty years after his death and consist of haunting portraits of the insane. Gericault worked with Étienne-Jean Georget, the chief physician of the Salpêtrière, the women’s asylum in Paris, to create ten portraits of the mentally ill. However, only five of the ten remain. What is remarkable is that Georget claimed he could tell what illness each patient had simply by looking at the portraits. The five remaining portraits are: 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.  All of the sitters are unnamed and are identified simply by their illness. Gericault’s interest in psychiatry was due to the fact that his grandfather and uncle both died insane. Although these portraits are intriguing and unique, some critics argue that the portraits were propaganda for Georget to claim the importance of psychiatrists in diagnosing mental illness.

Portrait of a Child Snatcher Portrait of a Kleptomaniac Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena) woman addicted to gambling

Portraits from left to right: “Portrait of a Child Snatcher” 1822, “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac” 1822, “Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command” 1822, “Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena)” 1822, “A Woman Addicted to Gambling” 1822

What is immediately known is the unease of the portraits due to the gazes of the sitters never looking directly at the viewer, but looking distracted and lost in their own thoughts. The viewer gets the sense that the people in the portraits did not authorize for these portraits to be created and had no say in the way they were depicted. However, their pose is constrained and typical of portraits so that it does not look like they are in asylums. The loose brushstrokes indicate that the portraits were created quickly and probably in one sitting and painted entirely from observation. Critics claim that this type of brushwork is in contrast to Gericaults earlier works with clean lines and sculptural style so the erratic way the paintings were created are meant to represent the patients disordered thoughts. Also striking is that although the dimensions of the canvas vary from portrait to portrait, the heads of the patients are all close to life-size, creating even more unease with the viewer. The dark colors used in each portrait also add to the somber atmosphere.

Works Cited

“Khan Academy.” Gericault Portraits of the Insane. Khan Academy. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

“Théodore Géricault (Getty Museum).” Théodore Géricault (Getty Museum). The J. Paul Getty Trust. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

“Theodore Gericault”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2015

An additional article discussing one portrait of a “Man with the ‘Monomania’ of Child Kidnapping” and more on the portraits of the insane by Gericault:

To learn more about English sporting art watch this YouTube video:


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