In this ongoing series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: “La Monomane de l’envie.” Click here to learn more.
Perhaps best known for his monumental history painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” French romantic painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was also an outstanding portraitist. During the waning years of the painter’s career in the early 1820s, Géricault was commissioned to execute a series of portraits by Dr. Georget, head of the Paris Asylum. These studies of the mentally ill — with their incredible sensitivity and psychological intensity — are portraits that have rarely been bettered in history.
Located in the Fine Arts Museum in Lyons, France, this week’s feature portrait is a dramatic visual probing of a female subject struck with “obsessive envy.” Painted in 1822, the subject is presented in half-length against an empty background. Géricault’s choice of presentation was adroit, as the tightly cropped space and lack of any spatial context forces the viewer to confront — rather uncomfortably — the disturbed sitter directly. Close inspection of the visage reveals a multitude of information and the subject is captured with incredible sensitivity. The woman — who is in advanced age — menacingly looks out of the picture toward the viewer’s left. Her mouth is very tightly pressed while her eyes are worn with red-rimmed emotion. Perhaps caught during an episode of her mania, Géricault has revealed physical facts with authenticity and verisimilitude, which contrast rather sharply from the painter’s early idealized portraiture.
Interest in mental illness among Géricault and his romantic contemporaries was a well-documented phenomenon and followed a burgeoning pseudo-science that believed the human face could reveal much about an individual’s character, especially with regard to madness, criminal activity, and the moment of death. The sad state of Géricault’s own health during this time might have also affected his interest in and thoughtfulness about the subject. In fact, Géricault died in 1824 after a long period of declining health, in particular a chronic tuberculosis infection. What is more, it seems Géricault’s own family had a history of insanity, making the psychological discomfort of his subjects all the more poignant. Undoubtedly weakened by his worsening condition, one could reasonably assume Géricault felt a certain identification with his subjects. All told, the five portraits that survive from this series, including the portrait here, are firmly positioned in the pantheon of great historical portraiture.
To learn more, visit the Fine Arts Museum in Lyons.
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