Théodore Géricault, the author of the famous painting The raft of the Medusa and one of the masters of French Romanticism, he painted ten portraits of mentally ill patients in the asylums of Paris during the early years of the 19th century. This series, call Monomania, was commissioned by Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, head of psychiatry at the Salpêtrier hospital, to teach his students about the shapes and expressions of the faces of people with mental disorders. Of those ten portraits so far only five were known corresponding to envy, gambling, obsessive fixation, kleptomania and pedophilia. The rest had been hidden from science and art for more than 200 years.
The Spanish molecular biologist Javier Burgos has published this Thursday an article in the magazine The Lancet Neurology that reveals the existence of the sixth of the portraits of the Monomania from Géricault: The melancholic man. The researcher affirms that the condition of sadness or depression reflected in the picture is confirmed by the presence of wrinkles in the between the eyebrows of the portrayed patient, which represents the form of the classic Greek omega sign, described by the German psychiatrist Heinrich Schüle as a distinctive feature of melancholy.
The painting also reflects several of the main characteristics of the others Monomania. Burgos says that the size of the portrait is congruent with the other five paintings; the composition is similar, an illuminated face on a dark background; and the protagonist wears a religious garment similar in color to the red scarf in the portrait that represents envy. “Another important thing is that the painting is not signed, the French romantics did not sign their works, it would be very doubtful that if it had the name of the painter it would be an original monomania”, explains Burgos.
The unpublished painting found by Burgos after several years of searching is one of the most relevant paintings for understanding the relationship between art, madness and medical science. The Spanish scientist says that the work, found in a private Italian collection after an arduous secret investigation, was used to transform the idea that the mentally ill suffered from some supernatural curse.
Burgos explains that, at that time, “psychiatric patients were treated like animals, they were tied with shackles to the walls, they beat them, they put straitjackets on them, they deprived them of eating and drinking.” “French psychiatrists, including Dr. Georget, were the first to apply the scientific method to these patients, they began to see them as people, made a characterization of the disease and even tried to cure them,” he adds. Burgos insists that Géricault’s paintings were decisive in this entire process of recognition of the mentally ill as human beings.
According to Burgos, a specialist in the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s, the physiognomy and phylopathy of the 19th century tried to demonstrate the influence of the shape of the skull or facial expression in the development of mental illnesses. “These theories in which Géricault participated by portraying the sick were the first scientific trends that put the patient at the center of gravity in the study of mental illness,” says Burgos. The Spanish researcher, author of the book Geographies of madness, acknowledges that it has currently been shown that it is not possible to identify any disease by looking at anyone’s face ”, but insists that these theories must be considered as the precursors of the approach of the disease from the study of the brain as an organ of the mind and the abandonment of superstitions.
The discovery of Burgos is, in the words of the art professor Laura Mínguez, “a milestone, a feat comparable to the discovery of a lost work by any of his contemporaries, such as Francisco de Goya, due to the importance of Géricault in the history of the French painting and the History of Art in general ”. This expert teacher in the art of French romanticism says that when Dr. Georget died, his two disciples shared the paintings at the rate of five each: “Maréchal would have taken his five paintings to England, where they lost track of them, while those that corresponded to Làcheze have reached our days and hang on the walls of the most important museums in the world ”.
According to the art professor, to date there was no “news of the five canvases that corresponded to Maréchal, they had even come to doubt their existence despite the documents in which the distribution was recorded.” For this reason, says Mínguez, the discovery of a sixth canvas strengthens the idea that Géricault did make the ten complete paintings, four of which are still missing. Burgos’ discovery also confirms that the five new canvases express other types of monomania other than those present in the first and do not include the same five patients portrayed at other moments of their illness, as previously believed, but rather different ones.
“If we take into account that the creative period of the painter was only 12 years and that his production was very limited, the discovery of one of his works acquires an extraordinary relevance in addition to the fact that he is an artist whom we can equate with Goya in fact that both represent the transition from classic models to new forms ”, says Mínguez.