Géricault’s latest “lost folly” is hiding in plain sight at the Louvre

Next to the entrance door of room 941 of the Louvre Museum hangs the portrait of a mysterious man in a hat. Due to his attire, typical of the Vendée region, the French artist has traditionally been considered Theodore Gericault he painted it after a visit to this part of the country, but the evidence found by the neuroscientist Javier Burgos indicates that it is an even more extraordinary painting.

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According to the data published this Friday by the Spanish researcher in the magazine The Lancet Neurology, this work located in a transit area of ​​the Parisian museum belongs to the series of ten portraits called “the monomanias”, with which Géricault wanted to reflect mental illness and of which only five were known until 2021. But the inexhaustible work and curiosity of Javier Burgos have led him to complete this mystery until he found three other works (including this one) that were considered non-existent or lost.

The lost faces of “madness”

To understand this detective story we must go back to 2017, when the Valencian neuroscientist wrote an article about Géricault’s lost portraits. There he recounted that between 1822 and 1823, and after completing his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa the French painter had portrayed to a series of patients in psychiatric hospitals in Paris trying to show the different faces of “madness”: the envythe pathological gamblingthe obsessive fixationthe kleptomania and the kidnapping of children. It was a commission from those known as “alienists”, the French doctors who were pioneers in humanizing mental illness, which from a scientific point of view gave it great interest.

In a letter published in 1863 by a famous art dealer, five other paintings were cited that no one had heard from again, and Burgos fantasized about the possibility of finding them. “How beautiful it would be to recover the missing paintings, to unveil the mystery, to know if Géricault’s lost portraits broaden the range of madness or, on the contrary, constitute the most sublime medical experiment that art has ever contributed to science”, he wrote.

The Spanish researcher has managed to identify up to three of those lost portraits and the resolution of the complete puzzle is approaching

Six years later, and after an investigation worthy of a Hollywood movie, the researcher from the Universitat Jaume I, in Castellón, has managed to identify up to three of those lost portraits and the resolution of the problem is near. puzzle complete. The previous two, monomania of The religion and of the drunkenness, located them in 2021 and 2022 in an Italian private collection and in a Versailles gallery, respectively. The new find, unlike the first two, was escondido in full view, on the walls of the most visited art museum in the world.

another piece of the puzzle

“I knew about this picture, but I had not associated it with monomanias,” explains the author of the discovery to elDiario.es. “Basically because in the main catalog of Géricault’s work, written in 1955, this possibility was directly ruled out.” Specifically, the book Géricault and his work (Géricault and his work), by Klaus Berger, literally says that “although it is stylistically related to the paintings of the mentally ill (…) this painting does not belong to that series”.

With the two previous findings published, Burgos returned to this apparent impasse in search of loose ends. “From the beginning it seemed to me that this painting was very similar to the series,” he recalls. “The composition, the neutral background, the size fit me… why does Berger say that it is not?” Then he saw the author quoting the back catalog of another specialist, Solange Rene Doumicand decided to go to the original source.

I knew this painting, but had not associated it with monomanias. The most famous catalog said that it was not from the series

javier burgos neuroscientist

“To my surprise,” explains Burgos, “I discovered that Doumic had written an article in the French Museums Bulletin at the time the Louvre bought the painting, in 1938, and his first hypothesis was that it was monomania.” This time the researcher did not have to go to secret meetings with collectors or unravel the message hidden behind a frame; the reality was told by the chronicler of the purchase of the portrait for the Louvre. “The other five portraits had been bought by Dr. Maréchal, who took them to Brittany,” the text says. “It is possible that the Vendean was part of the latter’s lot.”

“Half of the things they put in the catalogs are half invented,” says Burgos. “So even though this document says it’s a monomania, it still made me suspicious.” It was then that he turned to the alienists’ texts and found the evidence he needed to corroborate his hypothesis. In volume 2 of Mental illnessesof Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol, the Spanish researcher found a clinical case from the Vendée. “I couldn’t believe it, but it seemed like he was describing the specific case,” he explains. The text talks about a 30-year-old patient who lived through the Vendée wars (1793-1796) as a child and since then “has not stopped suffering from panic attacks.”

This is a 30-year-old patient who lived through the Vendée wars as a child and since then “has not stopped suffering from panic attacks

In the description, Esquirol assures that it is a patient “who does not allow himself to be shaved” and provides dates that coincide: the painting was painted in 1822 and it is very possible that the subject of the portrait was a child around 1793. According to Javier Burgos , it is a case of post-traumatic stress, a monomania “caused by politics” that had been described by the alienists in this and other texts.

The hypothesis gains more strength if one takes into account that in the same text, Esquirol refers to three other patients who could be the ones who gave rise to the portraits of obsessive fixation, envy and gambling. “Given the chronological data (historical, artistic, and medical), the strong association with monomania that psychiatrists attribute to political struggles, and the pictorial composition, I believe this portrait belongs in the series,” he writes. The mysterious man with the hat is the third of the lost monomanias.

A broader perspective

This new discovery allows Javier Burgos to have a much better idea of ​​what happened to Géricault’s batch of paintings and to begin to put an end to a mystery that has lasted two centuries. “From the outset, what was being discussed was as simple as whether they existed or not, and the discovery of three of the five works answers this question,” he argues. At the time, it was also speculated that, if they existed, perhaps they were part of a series that reflected the before and after of the disease, as was the custom for many decades with the mentally ill. But the painting of the man with a hat was painted by Géricault months before he died and the date of the composition rules it out. “They are the last pictures that he paints in his life, he would not have given him time to paint his recovery”, he assures.

For Víctor Mínguez, director of the Department of Iconography and Art History at the Jaume I University (UJI), this is an “exceptional find”. “It forces us to rewrite what we know about Géricault, because some specialists have never seen these paintings”, he assures. The fact that this latest monomania was in full view in the Louvre Museum — a few meters from the painting of the gambling monomania — shows, in his opinion, that the gaze of experts is often too focused. “Sometimes a person like Javier who comes from the world of biomedicine has a much more open look and can see things that specialists don’t see. It’s quite a lesson to learn.”

Each face portrayed by Géricault is a journey into the depths of the human being.

Victor Minguez Director of the Department of Art History of the UJI

In the opinion of this art specialist, each face portrayed by Géricault is “a journey into the depths of the human being.” “We are seeing the artist’s gaze on a mentally ill person, we know that he looks at them with a rigor that he claims to be absolute, he tries to decipher from the state of mind to the deepest feelings”, he explains. “And this series is intended to provide an artistic vision of a scientific problem that is madness, it is the first time that art is at the service of science; Géricault is blazing a new trail.”

Inmaculada Rodríguez Moya, professor of Art History at the UJI, also believes that it is a great find and is convinced that Javier Burgos will end up completing the series. “The most interesting thing is how he has been able to compare the findings very well with the writings of Esquirol and Georget and the descriptions that they make in their texts of some cases that are real, because that is what Géricault does, looking for real patients and not archetypes. and make this kind of portrait of madness, which is exceptional in the 19th century”, he points out. “For me, something that alienists repeat is key, and that is that when you see these people they seem absolutely normal if you don’t tell them what causes their disorder,” explains Burgos. And that’s what we see in these paintings, people like any of us, only with a disease. “Since alienists want to treat them in a human way, he paints them as people, not dressed as crazy people as had been done until then,” she emphasizes.

Like the alienists, Géricault paints them as people, not dressed as madmen as had been done until then.

javier burgos neuroscientist

What was the process that led to the execution of this exceptional series of portraits? With everything he has learned in this time, Javier Burgos believes that when Géricault undertakes the colossal task of painting The Raft of the Medusa, he meets the doctor who was on board the ship, Henry Savigny, who puts him in contact with the alienists to document himself. And that’s where his obsession was born. As if it were a game of mirrors, history repeats itself: Géricault becomes obsessed with portraying the mentally ill and is the victim of his own monomania, an obsession parallel to that of the author of this investigation, who will not stop until he finds the two portraits of the missing series.

“Great geniuses are always obsessed with something”, adds Rodríguez Moya, “and a commission that could have been purely mechanical for psychiatry students to study, Géricault turns into great masterpieces”. “The genius of painting meets the genius of medicine and both carry out one of the most sublime medical and artistic experiments in history, which forever changed their respective disciplines”, sums up Burgos. Thanks to his exhaustive research, today we are fortunate to be able to look into the eyes of those mentally ill confined in Parisian asylums. “Two hundred years later – he concludes – we can scrutinize them as Georget and Géricault did, to continue trying to understand the substratum of mental illness”.

Source: elDiario.es – elDiario.es by www.eldiario.es.

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