In the early nineteenth century, information about mental illness was limited to say the least. There was even a surprising “study” done at the intersection of art and science.
Psychiatrist Etienne-Jean Georget, among other scientists at the time, believed that mental illnesses such as kleptomania and dementia could be diagnosed by recognizing certain facial features in a patient. He asked Theadore Gericault of Raft of the Medusa fame to paint a series of portraits of subjects deemed insane. The result was ten paintings depicting conditions such as obsessive envy, general insanity, and “delusions of military rank.”
Of course mental illness cannot be diagnosed simply by looking at a person. Fortunately we know much more now. The portraits were not successful in their original purpose, but they were groundbreaking for another reason. This series was one of the only examples at the time of mental illness being portrayed with dignity. The touching works can still resonate with us today. Although they don’t work as diagnostic material, they shed light on the human side of mental illness.