efore the advent of photography artists were employed to illustrate classical facial appearances of medical conditions such as Down’s Syndrome. Some facial appearances like scars, cauliflower ears, and broken noses may suggest certain sports. Other attributes like smiling or frowning might suggest personality traits. Wearing of glasses might increase impressions of intelligence, ill performed or ill-advised facial tattoos may suggest lack of intelligence or psychopathology or merely racial derivation. Not all painting were objective records however.
In 1821 Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault illustrated various conditions in a collection of 10 portraits of which only five exist (see image). Géricault gave the portraits to Dr Étienne-Jean Georget, a psychiatrist caring for those portrayed, possibly as thanks for treating him previously and perhaps as a potential educational tool for identifying the disorders portrayed therein. The fate of the missing five works is unknown, though one scholar, Albert Boime theorised that they depicted the same patients after treatment, showing the effects of Georget’s care. All that is known about these portraits comes from a letter by the writer Louis Viardot, who discovered the five surviving works 40 years later, rolled up in the corner of a dusty attic.
Georget mistakenly believed that mental disorders were reflected in facial appearances, and probably commissioned the paintings to demonstrate this. It is not known whether Georget obtained informed consent. The patients probably were not in a position to complain and neither was Géricault, a former patient of Georget..
Géricault’s portraits shows he evidently felt a close sympathy with his “studies”, which is apparent in these compassionate studies of individuals, eschewing external labels in favour of a close attention to face, gaze, habit, and mood rather than an impersonal study of those portrayed.
Philip D Welsby
Correspondence to Philipwelsby@aol.com