Theodore Gericault and his Controversial ‘Portraits of the Insane’.

Theodore Gericault and his Controversial ‘Portraits of the Insane’.

To most of you, this topic will be very boring, and I don’t blame you for thinking so. Regardless, I find art and art history very fascinating, so here is my attempt to blend art and social cognition together.

In the 1800’s the mentally ill were looked down upon, even by those in the medical profession; deemed insane or lunatics. The clergy was usually involved (often due to the lack of interest in the field), as it was thought that regular church attendance and repentance would help alleviate symptoms. The treatment of individuals within the care of the clergy was considered humane (and effective at the time), however, while the population of the mentally ill seemingly rose the church could no longer harbor patients and thus, mental asylums were favored (Foerschner, 2010).

Those admitted to these asylums were treated like animals, often chained up in cramped cells, starved and forced to sit within their own filth that was never cleaned up (Butcher, Hooley & Mineka, 2007). Staff were often unqualified, and attempts to help the admitted consisted of purging, bloodletting, high dosages of powerful drugs, restraints and other various torturous devices.

It was during this time of abuse that Gericault, a central painter in the romantic style movement, started his work in the Salpêtrière, the womans asylum in Paris with the permission of Étienne-Jean Georget, the chief physician. Gericault was to produce ten of these paintings, however, fifty years after his death, only five of the ten now exist. (Kennedyt9, 2015)

The five portraits include:

Portrait of a Child Snatcher, 1822, oil on canvas.


Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, 1822, oil on canvas.


Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command, 1822, oil on canvas.


Portrait of a Woman Addicted to Gambling, 1822, oil on canvas.


Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena), 1822, oil on Canvas.


While not confirmed, it’s believed by critics that Georget commissioned these paintings as propaganda for the transfer of patients from the clergy to the asylums. Another reason behind the creation of these painting is possibly the fact that Gericault’s father and grandfather had died ‘insane’ in an asylum, perhaps making this topic relevant to him. It’s also widely believed among the art community that, regardless of Georget’s tie to the portraits, Gericault sympathized with the patients.

It was common for the general populous to just disregard or neglect the mentally ill, and then became increasingly popular to expose these patients to the general public, like circus animals. However; Gericault doesn’t exploit his painting subjects. The painting is relatively dark in composition, and the subjects are not looking at the viewer (done to purposefully create the notion that they’re ‘lost in their own thoughts’), but Gericault keeps their humanity, something often stripped away in asylums.

It’s unknown exactly what circumstances Gericault’s father and grandfather were under, but perhaps Gericault felt what David A. Karp Valaya Tanarugsachock calls “an emotional anomie”, something left-over, like grief or guilt, denial or confusion, a common emotional response to knowing your family member is mentally ill (Tanarugsachock, 2000). This feeling is often lifted as family members/caretakers can come to terms with their mentally ill kin, but in this time period, Gericault never had that option, potentially leaving him to cope with his grief through his true passion; painting. Since this matter was a social-taboo, Gericault’s non-conformity was not received well, and viewers were repulsed more often than not. Unfortunately Theodore Gericault died young from chronic tubercular infection, and his Portraits of the Insane series was never publicly shown during his lifetime.

Throughout his career, Gericault had a tendency to destroy the ‘ideal’ through his scandalous and controversial subject matter, and to this day continues to be an outlier in terms of conventional romantic period artists.


Foerschner, Allison M. 2010. The History of Mental Illness: From Skull Drills to Happy Pills. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse 2 (09),

Karp, David A., and Valaya Tanarugsachock. “Mental illness, caregiving, and emotion management.” Qualitative Health Research 10, no. 1 (2000): 6-25.

Mineka, S., J. Butcher, and J. Hooley. “Abnormal psychology.” (2007).


3 thoughts on “Theodore Gericault and his Controversial ‘Portraits of the Insane’.

  1. I really liked reading this post, not boring at all!
    The use of artwork is really interesting in this circumstance and says a lot about how the artist viewed the conditions of those in the asylums. This reminded me of some work I saw connected to mental illness. Bryan Charnley was an artist who suffered from Schizophrenia. He decided to paint a self portrait every day as he reduced his medication and eventually stopped taking it completely. You can see how his view of himself changes through the portraits and the journal entries he provides with them. Unfortunately, Bryan committed suicide after completing his last portrait. Although there may not be as clear of a link to social cognition in this example, I think it does say a lot about how art can be used to express internal views or cognition.


  2. (Just an FYI for Dr. Martin, don’t count this as one of my referenced comments)

    I don’t have anything to build on your argument, but I did want to say that this post was fascinating. The dark paintings are an interesting way to portray the asylum patients, very different from other contemporary art at the time. Well done.


    1. Thank you very much for the read, Giovanni! 🙂
      Yes, it was quite different! Theodore Gericault painted another very controversial subject before starting this series. It was called “The Raft of The Medusa”, in which a very inexperienced captain with some wealthy ties ran a boat across some reef, causing a the ship to wreck and a majority of the crew to die. This event was very scandalous, and there were many attempts to brush the incident under the rug, so Gericault’s pursuit of justice for the dead crew was also very unusual for the time. 🙂

      Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

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