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Feature Archive
November, 2000

Notorious Portraits
By John Malyon
 Overflattering Portraits I: Napoleon
 Overflattering Portraits II: Van Dyck and Holbein
 Grotesques and Horrors
 Illness and Deformity
Read the first part of this article from last month
Madmen and Madwomen
Géricault's Studies

The ancient science of Physiognomy holds that human character and temperment can be judged from the features of the face. It's been officially "debunked" for a century, although I suspect there aren't many sighted people on Earth who don't secretly believe this on a very deep level.

Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy That's the source of interest in Théodore Géricault's series of portraits of the insane. Through his acquaintance with a pair of French doctors, he painted ten portraits (of which only five survive) of the insane, and associated each portrait with its mental disorder. The existing portraits are: It would be especially interesting to know the story of the first woman (pictured at left). After all, who's ever heard of someone being committed to an insane asylum for envy? Maybe some family members suffered from obsessive envy of her property.

As interesting as the series is, it's a stretch to think that we can learn much about the inner lives of these patients from their portraits. Still, it could be worse: imagine trying to deduce the crimes committed and the temperment of the former owners of Géricault's Guillotined Heads.


The sleep of reason produces monsters.

This phrase - Goya's title for his famous self-portrait of a dreaming man surrounded by phantoms - set the tone for the final third of his life.

The Horse as Abductor, from Los Disparates Goya had suffered from a serious illness in 1792, which left him permanently deaf. His career continued to progress, but his deafness caused him to become more and more isolated from others. He explored the real world of the mad in works such as Yard with Lunatics (I actually prefer the Spanish title: Corral de locos), and his imagery eventually grew so fantastic and macabre that it seems that Goya himself was on the brink of madness.

External events didn't contribute to an overall sense of well-being. The bloody Peninsular War raged in Spain from 1808 to 1814. Goya painted for the French for a period until they were driven out of Madrid, and even sworn an oath of loyalty, and as a result he risked being executed as a traitor. As a liberal and a social critic he was at constant risk of incurring the wrath of the king. He was even hauled before the Spanish Inquisition to justify painting Naked Maja.

Goya's major works of imagination were:
  • Los Caprichos series of engravings published in 1799, blazingly satirical for the time and populated by fantastic creatures. (Click on "Lista de obras" to see the works)
  • Los Disparates, an even more fantastic series of engravings which were not published in Goya's lifetime. (Again, click on "Lista de obras")
  • The Black Paintings, which were found painted onto the walls of the last house Goya lived in in Spain. The most famous and most horrific is Saturn Devouring One of His Children (The Artchive has all 14 paintings online, but it took me a long time to figure out that you have to follow the stairs "upstairs" to see half of the exhibit)
Other Painters

There are a number of other famous and/or notable images of madness to be found. Pieter Bruegel, one of the great visionary painters, created an apocalyptic scene starring Mad Meg. Dürer showed us an angel unexpectedly suffering from Melancholia. Alfred Kubin pictured Madness literally chipping away at a poor fellow's mind. And if there's anything worse than a dour madman it's a happy one, as Antoine Wiertz showed in the bizarre Hunger, Madness, Crime.

Finally, in a pre-Freudian world where "madness" could stem from a myriad of causes, none of which were well understood, what treatment was available? A common Medieval medical procedure was the surgical removal of the "Stone of Madness," which was thought to cause mental disorders such as epilepsy, melancholy, and so on. Presumably the stone was palmed in advance and "removed" after a superficial but sufficiently bloody incision had been made to the head.

This quackery was captured in a famous painting by Hieronymous Bosch, dating from about 1475 (in which the patient is actually having a tulip removed from his forehead). The oddness of the participants suggests that Bosch is mocking the procedure, but the tradition seems to have survived long into the Renaissance era: a century later, the same operation was documented by Pieter Huys and also by Jan van Hemessen.

There may have been some beneficial placebo effect to the procedure, but in my view the patients should have left the Stone of Madness where it was, and had their Stone of Stupidity taken out instead.

Come back in December to read the conclusion to what has turned into a 3-part saga. Nudes! Heresy! Politically incorrect portraits! Notorious self-portraits! Does anybody really read this far into the article? And much much more besides!

Have we missed anything important? Know of a favorite portrait that qualifies as "notorious" for some reason? Let me know.


This article is copyright 2000 by John Malyon. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

John Malyon can be contacted at jmalyon@artcyclopedia.com