My Daily Art Display today is a painting by the French artist and pioneer of the Romantic Movement Théodore Géricault. Many will be familiar with his two masterpieces, namely, Officer of the Hussars and The Raft of Medusa but today I am going to take a look at a rather disturbing portrait he completed in 1823 entitled The Madwoman or sometimes known as Hyena of Salpétrière.
But first, a little about the artist. Théodore Géricault was born in 1791 in Rouen in the north west of France. He began his art tuition under the tutelage of Carle Venet an expert painter of horses and the “sport of kings”. He also spent time with the classical painter Piere-Narcisse Guérin who believed the young Géricault had great talent but lacked calmness and composure which was needed to become a first-rate painter.
He went on to study at The Louvre where he copied the paintings of the Masters, such as Rubens, Titian and Rembrandt. He did this for almost six years and developed a love for their style of painting which he believed to be of much more importance in comparison to the new art genre Neoclassicism, which had begun to come to the fore at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1816 he went to Italy and visited Florence, Rome and Naples and this trip was the start of his love affair with the art of Michelangelo. Géricault’s first great success as an artist came in 1821 when he was thirty years of age and he exhibited The Charging Hussar at the Paris Salon.
It was in 1821 and just three years before his death at the young age of thirty-three that he embarked on a series of ten portraits of the insane who were all patients of his friend Doctor Etienne-Jean Georget, the French psychiatrist who pioneered in psychiatric medicine and worked at the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. They series of portraits were all of maniacs who had an obsession. One was a person who stole children, one was a person who obsessed with gambling, one was a man who was obsessed with robbery, a kleptomaniac, and the poor woman in our featured painting was obsessed with envy. The name of the establishment derived from the fact that it had originally been a gunpowder factory and then later was converted to a dumping ground for the poor of Paris. It served as a prison for prostitutes, and a holding place for the mentally disabled, criminally insane and the poor. Its other “claim to fame“was that it was infested by rats!
Of the ten portraits only five, including the one featured today, remain. The Madwoman is housed at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon. In this painting Géricault has with compassion tried to capture and understand the image of mental illness. Géricault, like many of his contemporaries, examined the influence of mental states on the human face and believed, as others did, that a face more accurately revealed character, especially in madness and at the moment of death.
Let us look closely at the old woman in the painting. She avoids our gaze as she looks downwards with slightly bulging eyes. Her eyes are red-rimmed probably brought on by the amount of mental and physical pain she has had to endure. Her mouth is tense. You can see the anger in her face but angry with what? Her case notes stated that she suffered from “envy obsessions” and maybe the slightest hint of a green tint to her face was the artist’s way to signify her obsession with envy. Her expression was likened to that of a hyena and hence the subtitle of the painting Hyena of Salpétrière.
Gericault’s career was short-lived. His love of horse riding was to be his downfall as after many riding accidents, which had weakened him, coupled with chronic lung infections, the young artist died after much suffering in Paris at the tender age of thirty-three.
If you ever visit Paris you should, like I have done on many occasions, make the journey to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, which houses the graves and tombs of many famous people including that of Géricault, his bronze figure reclines, brush in hand, on top of his tomb.