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Madness, Psychiatry, and the Visual Arts in History

Madness, Psychiatry, and the Visual Arts in History


While much in the history of “madness” has changed over time, one of the most consistent—yet sometimes overlooked—features of that history has been the presence of the visual arts. Dating back to ancient times, observers have attempted to understand and communicate the meaning of mental illness through paintings, drawings, sculpture, and ceramics and, later, photography and film.

Indeed, some of the most enduring images of what used to be called “insanity” and its treatment have been crafted by artists. Think of William Hogarth’s portrayal of Bedlam Hospital (1735); Charles Louis Muller’s depiction of Philippe Pinel removing chains from the insane; or Andrea Brouillet’s A Clinical Lesson With Charcot at the Salpêtrière (1887). To many, art has been seen as uniquely qualified to provide insight into both those deemed mad and their self-professed healers.

The histories of the visual arts and madness, however, are even more tangled than this. As Gail A. Hornstein, PhD,1 recently pointed out in an essay in the British magazine The Psychologist, art proved to be an integral part of clinical research and treatment dating back to the building and proliferation of asylums in the 19th century.

Hornstein is Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness.2 Throughout her career, she has been committed to recovering the voices and personal experiences of those living with mental illness. In fact, her Bibliography of First-Person Narratives of Madness in English3 has long been a canonical resource for many of us historians.

As Hornstein notes, prominent alienists—as asylum healers were called in the 19th century—and psychiatrists since the 1830s believed that the visual arts had a role to play within asylums. Jean Etienne Esquirol (Salpêtrière) turned to paintings and drawings, while Hugh Welch Diamond (Surrey County Lunatic Asylum) and Jean-Martin Charcot (Salpêtrière) took advantage of the new technology of photography to capture images of their charges.


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