Portrait of a Kleptomaniac
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Portrait of a Kleptomaniac or Portrait of an Insane Person (French : L'Aliéné or Le Kleptomane) is a 1822 oil painting by Théodore Géricault, part of a series of 'monomanies' by Géricault. It was part of a series of ten paintings he made of the patients of Étienne-Jean Georget, head doctor at the Salpêtrière. The paintings were commissioned by Georget so that his students could study the physical traits of these "monomaniacs", in a sort of scientific realism that parallels the literary realism of that time. It is currently kept in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium.
The painting belongs to a series of ten portraits of the insane inmates of Salpêtrière asylum in Paris. Géricault made it nearly the end of his career and the five remaining portraits from the series represent the painter's last triumph. Psychiatrist Étienne-Jean Georget, one of the founders of social psychiatry, asked Géricault to do this painting which would represent each clinical models of disease. Georget believed that dementia was a modern disease, which depended in large part of social progress in industrialized countries. He believed that the madmen who were mentally ill need help. Instead of bringing the ill persons in a class room to examine their physical characteristics, the doctor instructed Géricault to paint models representing different types of madness. Dr. Georget much appreciated the objectivity in this series of works that established a link between romantic art and empirical science.
The work was made quickly, which prefigured the concerns of the Impressionists. However, the painting did not belong to Impressionism. At the time, to give dignity to those were mentally ill was new : they were generally excluded from society, and the previous works represented madmen as possessed creatures or ludicrous people, according to a medieval belief.
Géricault tried to show objectively the patient's face : the empty gaze of kleptomaniac goes to infinity and his face is rigid, with a beard neglected and dirty neck. The paintings are noteworthy for their bravura style, expressive realism, and for their documenting of the psychological discomfort of individuals, made all the more poignant by the history of insanity in Géricault's family, as well as the artist's own fragile mental health.