Much has been written on Vincent Van Gogh’s relationship with his doctor, Dr. Gachet. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet remains to this day the highest selling piece of art sold at public auction. But Gericault’s relationship with Dr. Georget is equally fascinating. Gericault spent much time at the hospital near his studio obsessively studying all phases of human suffering, from the first seizure to the final agony, and their lasting imprint on the human body. He had obtained from the hospital near his studio a macabre collection of decapitated human heads and limbs to finalize his famous “The Raft of Medusa”. Faces may be “the theatre on which the soul exhibits itself” but they are not central to Gericault’s body of work. The apotheosis of love, violence, and war is achieved through his human bodies and horses. Only one face turns to us in “The Raft of Medusa”.
But in 1822, Gericault completed a series of ten portraits of the “insane”, five of which remain missing, at the Paris Salpetriere asylum at Dr. Etienne Georget’s direction. The lack of sentiment in each of these portraits is matched by a lack of sensationalism and a remarkable gesture of empathy through objective rendering. The empty gazes on the faces of these “madmen” stare off into infinity; like photographs, these portraits have no forward, no afterward, just the immediate instant. The terse corners of Dr. Gachet’s mouth and drooping eyes, which Van Gogh wrote of as the “heartbroken expression of our time” to Gauguin, cannot be found here. But their heartache is ever present and treated with solemn austerity.