Melancholy in the arts

Melancholy in the arts

Based on the exhibition:
Mélancolie – Génie et Folie en Occident
Paris 2005/2006 – Berlin 2006

C. Régnier,France

The Temptation
of Saint Anthony,
by Hieronymus
Bosch (c.1450-

Oil on panel. Prado,
Madrid, Spain.
© Bridgeman Art

Art and Psychosis
Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1942)

A self-taught naïve
painter prodigy’s
tormented ascent
to fame

I . Spaak, France

L’Arbre de Vie. Oil on canvas
(114×145 cm), 1928.

Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis, France.
© Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis;
Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP.

Christian RÉGNIER, MD
Praticien Attaché Consultant
de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Paris
Société Internationale
d’Histoire de la Médecine
9 rue Bachaumont
75002 Paris, FRANCE

Melancholy in the arts
Based on the exhibition:
Mélancolie – Génie et Folie en Occident
Paris 2005/2006 – Berlin 2006
by C. Régnier, France

The Greeks introduced melancholy into medicine, philosophy, and various forms of artistic expression. While physicians related this affliction to black bile (the literal meaning of melancholia in Ancient Greek), philosophers saw it as a “human temperament” linked to affectivity, wisdom, spirit, and reasoning. Throughout history, the fabric of this duality has been woven like warp and weft, conflating mental illness and the artistic temperament plumbing the innermost depths of human suffering. Owned or not as a disease, melancholy has forged intimate and complex links between body and soul. As Jean Clair, Curator of the exhibition Mélancolie—Génie et Folie en Occident, puts it: “There is a physiology and a psychology of melancholy, an anatomy and a chemistry of melancholy, a philosophy and a pharmacy of melancholy, a nosology of melancholy… There is a whole theater of melancholy.” The traits and poses of melancholy have long inspired artists in their countless creations—paintings, engravings, drawings, ancient steles, Rodin’s Thinker lost in his dark thoughts. And there is the melancholic symbolism of the human skull, the open compass, the architect’s tools (like those of the Passion), the balance, the sundial, the hourglass, which reckon weight, space, and time. There too is lead, that saturnine metal (and root of saturnism) which accompanies the melancholic ritual; the animal world thronged with underground, nocturnal, and solitary creatures like the mole and owl, the basilisk with its baleful eyes; the green and yellow of the Elizabethan age, then blue and gray, the hues of melancholy.

Medicographia. 2010;32:202-209 (see French abstract on page 209)

Melancholy began its long career in Antiquity as a creature of black bile and madness, journeyed through the Middle Ages in acedic garb, and ever protean shed its Renaissance persona as tortured genius to enter the Age of Romanticism as the embodiment of the most legitimate of the poetical tones. This eventful journey was retraced in the exhibition Mélancolie—Génie et Folie en Occident organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris (October 10, 2005-January 16, 2006), and at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (February 17-May 7, 2006).1

Hippocrates and Aristotle: the medical-philosophical debate on melancholy

In the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, Hippocrates set forth a “medical” definition of melancholy. The 23rd aphorism (Book VI) gives an extensive explication: “If a fright or despondency lasts for a long time, it is a melancholic affection.” The Hippocratic Corpus established semiological analogies between melancholy, a quick temper, epilepsy, and madness. Incorporated by Greek physicians into the theory of humors, melancholy was explained by an accumulation of black bile in the human body; this excess could lead to madness. Over the centuries, the debate on melancholy was reduced to a discussion on the nature, cause, flow, and the origin of black bile. This pathology or temperament was deemed to stem from an organic disorder.2,3

Aristotle gave melancholy a philosophical dimension. In his Problem XXX, written in the 4th century before Christ, he asked: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics? Sometimes to the point of being taken by diseases that come from the black bile, as in the heroic legends about Hercules?” Black bile was deemed windy and cold, and to generate narcosis, athymia, apoplexy. But through subtle mixing with the three other humors in what the Greeks called “clotting,” and depending on the anatomical region where it was expressed, it could produce exceptional beings of heightened sensitivity. The melancholicman of geniusmay be a fragile being, but he fights doggedly against the slide into madness as he steers a course between insanity and reason to achieve wisdom.2

Ancient history and mythology abound with celebrated melancholics whose tales bear witness to this centuries-old medical-philosophical confusion: Plato, Socrates, Lysander afflicted by “melancholic genius,” and Hercules or Ajax in the grip of dementia. Ajax the Great inspired many Greek sculptors and playwrights. Known as the “bulwark of the Achaeans” because of his great height, Ajax was, along with Achilles, the strongest and bravest of the Greek heroes. Great grandson of Zeus, he fought against Hector, the Trojan prince, and after the Trojan war, together with Odysseus, took on the Trojans to recover his body. In recognition of their valor, they both laid claim to Achilles’ magical armor, forged on Mount Olympus. Odysseus proved more eloquent, and was rewarded with the armor, whereupon, in Sophocles’ eponymous play, Ajax falls to the ground, senseless. The goddess Athena casts a spell on him and when he awakens he imagines a flock of sheep to be the Achaean leaders, and slaughters those he takes to be Odysseus and Agamemnon. When he comes to his senses and finds himself covered in blood, he realizes what he has done and to avoid dishonor and shame falls upon his sword. Even in the underworld, Ajax epitomized the melancholic ideal, somber, silent, solitary, as depicted in the famous 1st century bronze statuette from Asia Minor.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin.

Bronze, 1880. Private collection. © Bridgeman Art Library.

From medieval acedia to humanist melancholy

In theMiddle Ages, the Church drew parallels betweenmelancholy and Adam’s original sin in the Garden of Eden, and thereafter those prone to melancholy were seen as easy prey for the Devil and his hellhounds. This is the theme of acedia, the forerunner of spleen, itself an archaic trope for melancholy, the refusal of others and of the self. Acedia—listlessness, sloth, disregard for one’s position in the world—particularly afflicted cloistered monks and nuns when lured away from the contemplation and love of God by the Devil. The French writer and critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) described acedia in his vast opus published between 1840 and 1859 on the Jansenist Port-Royal Abbey: “Acedia is the world-weariness typical of the cloistered life, above all in the desert when the religious figure lives alone: a vague, obscure, tender sadness, the tediousness of afternoons. Gripped by a yearning for the infinite being, we lose ourselves among ineffable desires.”4 Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) too describes acedia in The Temptation of Saint Anthony: “How I am bored, cried the anchorite. I would go somewhere, but where I know not; I don’t know what I want, I don’t even have the will to want. Yet to think that I’ve spent my whole life thus, and have never even seen the Pyrrhic dance! It’s pitiful! From where in the devil does this idea come to me?”5 The 1490 painting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) depicts the old hermit in the Egyptian desert. Diabolical creatures surround him, a naked woman emerges from a nearby pond, he tilts his head forward, evoking melancholy, but above all resistance to temptation. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Otto Dix (1891-1969), painted in 1944, the saint begs the Lord for help, as his hand strays towards, but does not quite touch, a scantily clad and provocative young woman who would not be out of place among the prostitutes of 1920s Berlin.6

Closely linked to melancholy, acedia had well-defined variants: the revolt of bad conscience, cowardliness, torpor, despair, verbiage, so many sins demanding penitence. Acedia was incorporated into the medieval symbolic imagination to the point that it was personified in the stained glass windows of the cathedrals. The only remedies for this scourge were manual work, prayer, orison, spiritual exercises. The Middle Ages merged the philosophical, religious, and medical principles of melancholy, while associating it with a divine ordeal.6

The Temptation
of Saint Anthony
by Hieronymus Bosch

Oil on panel. Prado,
Madrid, Spain.
© Bridgeman Art Library.

At the end of the Middles Ages, Arab alchemists attached the black bile produced by spleen to the influence of Saturn, the planet and god symbolized by lead. The first step in the alchemical transmutation, lead was qualified as the “melancholic state of matter.”7

Renaissance humanists revived the taste for melancholy, and the medieval concept of acedia faded away, and is not even mentioned in the monumental The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1575-1640).8 All mystics became “religious melancholics.” In the famous 1514 engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Melencolia I, the symbolism of the melancholic temperament is fully expressed. The principal figure— Melancholy—is an angel, a genius (ie, the divinity present in every individual). She sits in a dimly lit corner, head rested on left fist, absorbed in thought, eyes turned to the sea, her right hand holding an open compass, a bunch of keys hanging from her belt. In the background is a coastal landscape in light and shade, a rainbow; hard by a cherub (putto) writes, a dog sleeps, and strewn about are a stone polyhedron (now known as Dürer’s solid), a ruler, a pair of pliers, a saw, an hourglass, a beam balance, four nails, a ladder, a 4 by 4 magic square carved in stone (astrologically associated with Jupiter, thereby tempering the melancholic influence of Saturn). Robert Burton confirmed the great semiological value of the engraving: “Albertus Dürer paints melancholy, like a sad woman leaning on her arm with fixed looks, neglected habit, held therefore by some proud, soft, sottish, or half-mad […] and yet of a deep reach, excellent apprehension, judicious, wise, and witty.”8 In turn, the surrealists too praised the symbolic richness of Dürer’s engraving.9

Melencolia I, by Albrecht Dürer, expresses the
symbolism of the melancholic temperament.

Engraving, 1514. Private collection. © CORBIS.

Portrait of Don Carlos (1607-1632), second son of King
Philippe III of Spain, after Diego Velázquez (17th century).
Velázquez favored the use of black clothing for its
melancholic quality.

Oil on canvas. Chateau de Versailles, Versailles, France.
© RMN/Gérard Blot.

Portrait of Don Cristobal Suarez de Ribera,
by Diego Velázquez.

Oil of canvas, 1620. Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville, Spain.
© RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

The melancholy of nations

From the 16th century, in England, Spain, Italy, and France, melancholy was expressed through the arts by drawing inspiration from national cultural characteristics.

The melancholic essence of the English disposition was initiated under the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and reached its apogee in the 17th century. The Elizabethan era is characterized by a cultural and artistic blossoming qualified as the “English renaissance.” Its poetry, plays, and music voiced this destructive and artistically fruitful melancholy. The rest of Europe scoffed at these odd ways, calling them the “English malady.” Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was symbolic: the world’s blackness, the dread of the plot, will annihilated by despair, guilt, murderous urges, the imagination tortured by baneful spirits. Only Horatio, the man who is not in thrall to his passions, offers Hamlet a neutral vision of the world. A monument of English melancholy, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy published in 1621, tackled the existential and religious questions taxing men and women around the world. This 2000-page miscellany is a collection of quotes, a novel, a catalogue of remedies, a cartography of humanist learning. It summarizes the ambiguity of melancholy, which is both a catastrophe and a distinction: the genius is melancholic.8

Meanwhile, in the Spain of Philip II (1527-1598), proud and stimulating melancholy foreshadowed the decline of a great power. In 1575, the Spanish physician Jan Huarte de San Juan (1530-1588) published The Examination of Men’s Wits, in which he describes the varying capacities that distinguish men of different nations and the types of writing corresponding to each. This immensely successful work, translated into several European languages, classified wit and temperament by means of Greek science, but also astrology, the climate, and geography. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish character came closest to truth. And why? Because black bile warmed and purified by the sun enabled the melancholic temperament of the Spanish to cast golden light on the spirit, to dissipate stupor, to illuminate hidden truths. As outstanding theolo- gians, the Spaniards had the advantage—according to Huarte de San Juan—of easier access to existential truths than the French, Italians, or English. The epitome of this redeeming melancholic Spanish temperament is the eponymous hero of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) who, between fits of madness, perceives truth and gains wisdom.

La Danse ou Iris, by the French painter
Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Oil on canvas, 1719. Gemäldegalerie (SMPK), Berlin, Germany.
© BPK Berlin, Dist RMN/Jörg P. Anders.

In the visual arts, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), in particular, initiated the representation of the Kings of Spain invariably clothed in black to recall this vital melancholy.10

The French, proud of their temperate climate, reputed to be fiery or testy, liked to praise their gay and creative melancholy, sired by eloquence and the quest for beauty and sublimity.Michel deMontaigne (1533-1592), who read Huarte de San Juan, admitted that his somber thoughts could scarce resist the charms of civilized society, of French natural beauty. This temperate climate, according to Louis Pascal de la Court in his imaginary dialogue (1616) between an Italian, a Spaniard, a German, and a Frenchman, favored harmonious expression of the four humors. So the Frenchman was naturally drawn to equilibrium and so to balance of the humors, unlike the German tyrannized by his phlegmatic humor, the Spaniard prone to melancholy, or the Italian victim of his fiery humor. In France, one spoke of “sweet melancholy,” the pleasurable daydreaming that grows out of meditative or thoughtful solitude, a sort of controlled and purposeful sad- ness. In the 16th century, the French published many treatises on passion explaining how reason can restrain or calm the emotions, however they arise. The wish to control the manifestations of melancholy and to allow the soul to sit above the emotions was an expression of the Cartesian spirit oft attributed to the French. The painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), deemed highly strung and meditative, embodied this “sweet melancholy” in country scenes where foreground figures stretch languorously and daydream.

Souvenir of
by the romantic
painter Jean
Baptiste Camille
Corot, who
depicted melancholy
his representation
of nature.

Oil on canvas,
1864. The Louvre,
Paris, France.
© Giraudon/
Bridgeman Art

The Brooding
, by the
romantic painter
Jean Baptiste
Camille Corot.

Oil on zinc,
c.1857. Hamburger
© Bridgeman
Art Library.

But in the mid 18th century, a warning shot rang out for these geniuses of melancholy. The French physician Anne Charles Lorry (1726-1783), better known for his studies on skin ailments than for his research into mental health, published De Melancholia et Morbis Melancholis in 1765. He revised the encyclopedia definition of melancholy as an effect of weakness of the soul and bodily organs, and coined the term “nervous melancholy.” This was a dire blow to the theory of humors of the Greeks and to the philosophical approach, as it reducedmelancholy to amental disorder. The French school of alienism, whose leading figures were Philippe Pinel (1745- 1826) and Jean-Étienne Esquirol (1772-1840), leapt into the breach, seeking to systematize melancholy, called lypemania, and to classify it among nervous disorders and manifestations of madness.11

The Pool with a
Stormy Sky
, by the
romantic painter
Pierre Etienne
Theodore Rousseau.

Oil on panel, c.1865-67.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris,
France. © Lauros/
Art Library.

Romanticism, the apotheosis of melancholy

By associating melancholy with beauty and “the sublime,” the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) brought this hazy concept into the sphere of philosophy. In so doing, he launched the romantic era of melancholy. In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), he wrote: “the melancholic above all has a sense of the sublime (…) He is acutely sensitive to beauty, which he not only expects to charm him, but also to move him and inspire his admiration. The pleasure he takes in being serious is no less intense.” The melancholic feeling is qualified as “sweet and noble,” and “is engendered by the fright felt by a man intent on some great scheme when he considers the obstacles, the dangers to be overcome, the difficult but great victory that he must win over himself.”

Certain physicians of the early 19th century saw in the melancholic a “disease of the sensitive being” and recommended travel as a cure.12 The writer Étienne Pivert de Senancour (1770-1846) wondered: “From where does man draw the most lasting joy of his heart, this exquisite delight of melancholy, this charm full of secrets which makes him live by his pain and still love himself in the feeling of his ruin?” Forerunners of the impressionists, romantic painters like Camille Corot (1796-1875) and Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) invented a new symbolism: they depicted states of the melancholic soul by the representation of nature, which became the central motif of their works.12 In literature, the great school of modern melancholy is represented by François René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), whose hero René in his eponymous novella drags his gloomy figure through an “empty world.” With his “rich, prolific and marvelous” imagination, young René is afflicted by a disease of the soul that renders his existence “wretched, barren, and disenchanted.” Generations of French writers adulated and sought to emulate René, to the point that Chateaubriand wrote in his Mémoires d’Outre-tombe (1848-1850) that:
If René did not exist, I would not write it again; if it were possible for me to destroy it, I would destroy it. It spawned a whole family of René poets and René prose-mongers; all we hear nowadays are pitiful and disjointed phrases; the only subject is gales and storms, and unknown ills moaned out to the clouds and to the night. There’s not a fop who has just left college who hasn’t dreamt he was the most unfortunate of men (…) In René, I exposed an infirmity of my century.13,14

Then cameCharles Baudelaire (1821-1867), the poet ofmelancholy, bard of the estheticismof unhappiness, who denounced joy as a vulgar ornament of beauty and made melancholy his illustrious companion. _

Portrait of
François René
Vicomte de

who represented
the school of
modern melancholy
in literature.
Portrait by
Anne Louis
Girodet de

Oil on canvas,
1811. Chateau de
Versailles, France.
© Giraudon/
Bridgeman Art

Self portrait of the French
melancholy poet Charles Pierre
Baudelaire (1821-1867).

Pen and ink on paper (black and white
photograph). Private collection.
© Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Art Library.

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