Theodore Géricault portrayed a series of psychiatric patients, performing introspective studies with almost scientific features, as required by the customer, who intended to use these paintings for educational purposes. Gericault painted real portraits, characterized by a deep analysis of man’s psychology, even though in the 19th century portraits were destinated only to important clients. This painting precisely describes the features of the pathology that must be explained, even using the contrast between the white bonnet and the eyes, which are circled with red. The contrast is repeated again in the neckline of the dress, where the white is framed by red. By doing so, the chromatic inversion of contrasts reinforces the dynamics of the foreground, while the clothing, dark and neutral, is insensibly lost in the background, enhancing the vivacity of the face of the elderly woman.
These paintings are portraits at all effects, and therefore they raise the portrayed person to nobility, leading the observer to search for those signs of humanity that make a mentally ill person worthy of attention. In spite of the anonymity of that woman, imprisoned in a mental hospital more than a century ago, today it is still possible for us to know about her, thanks to this art work, which makes her still alive. The meaning of health care is, indeed, the same: to search for humanity even there where insanity apparently erased every sign of it. To care means to establish a relationship with the “hyena of Salpêtrière”, in order to change her gaze, which is lost in emptiness and escapes any contact with reality.
Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – Woman alienated by envy monomania (the Hyena of Salpêtrière), 1820-1824 ca. oil on canvas, 72 x 58 cm. Art Gallery, Lyon