Madness: from allegory to photographic evidence

Madness: from allegory to photographic evidence

  • Madness.

    REDON Odilon (1840 - 1916)

  • Portrait of crazy woman.

    DIAMOND Hugh Welch (1809 - 1886)

To close

Title: Madness.

Author : REDON Odilon (1840 - 1916)

Creation date : 1833

Date shown: 1883

Dimensions: Height 36 - Width 31

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Picture reference: 00-018633 / RF35822

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: September 2008

Historical context

The invention of photography in 1839 by Jacques Daguerre (1787-1851) had, among other things, significant consequences for medical research. It should indeed be noted that the psychiatric photography of the XIXe century focuses almost exclusively on manifestations of female "madness". The alienists of this time think of the body as a "symptom" of the soul, as a screen onto which the inner conflicts of the human being are projected. Photography is thus a valuable aid in describing, naming and classifying the various "mental" diseases, insofar as the body delivers its depths and intimate folds to the inquisitive eye of the lens.

On the aesthetic level, the approach to madness goes far beyond the simple evidence of the photographic cliché to interpret everything that is hidden behind appearances and suggest the invisible. At the end of the XIXe century, the Symbolist current - to which we can relate Odilon Redon - explores the depths of the soul. They announce in their own way the art of XXe century.

Image Analysis

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) is one of the masters of modern art - surrealists claimed it - and occupied a particularly original place in the art of his time. While his contemporaries were interested in the conquest of light and the alchemy of colors, he used the only resources of black and white. From 1875, and for more than ten years, the artist will devote himself to his “Noirs”, a series of drawings made in graphite or charcoal, the dark tones of which try to approach the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt or the sfumato by Leonardo da Vinci. This work on chiaroscuro refers to a very dark period in the painter's life, a moment of intense moral suffering whose end will coincide very precisely with the rediscovery of color and the introduction of pastels in his work from from 1890. His “Noirs” - drawings, charcoals and lithographs - express not only reality seen, but reality felt, revealing an invisible world born of his dreams.

The allegory of Madness belongs to this series. It is a portrait of an asexual figure with emaciated face and wearing a bonnet studded with bells. The huge, expressionless eyes conceal a closed, painful inner world where the strange competes with the fantastic. As in his various prison representations, Odilon Redon here takes up the old theme of the prisoner soul. This madness lurking in the depths of a fictional character is matched by the evidence of the snapshot taken by Hugh Welch Diamond (1809-1886). A pioneer of photography in England, superintendent of the Women's Department at the County Lunatic Asylum in Surrey, Diamond recorded on film from 1848 to 1858 many of the mentally ill with whom he came into contact on a daily basis. She’s one of those "crazy women" he photographed here. She is seated in a chair, her hands crossed quietly on her lap. The face alone reveals its otherness: under the messy hair, the grim gaze that fixes the lens is singularly absent, expressionless, indifferent.


Madness only exists in an established society and in relation to it: it is a fact of civilization. She has long been associated with the supernatural forces - beneficial or evil - which preside over human destinies: in this sense, she is a figure of eschatology, a manifestation of the tragedy of the human condition. As a result, madness fascinates, disturbs, frightens: the madman seems to hold the keys to a world situated on the borders of life and death, a world foreign to ordinary people and which is beyond his understanding.

Until the Renaissance, the madman was feared and respected as such. In the XVIIe century, the emergence of Cartesian rationalism silenced the great baroque madness once so present in the works of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1453-c. 1516) or of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569): raison et folie s' radically exclude.

In the classical age, madness is synonymous with passion, excess, fantasy, dreams, unreason, infringement of rules and social norms, exaltation of the individual to the detriment of the group, of intrusion of the vital force and the dimension of the sacred in the organization of collective life. The madman lives on the fringes of his group, disturbs it, challenges it or claims to radically transform it.

In the rational society of the classical century, madness no longer has its place, and its exclusion is achieved in the domain of institutions by confinement: the madman must be interned; even as a king's madman, he no longer has his place in the society of free men. He goes back to the XVIIIe century of having made this great break between reason and unreason, of which internment is only the institutional manifestation and which remains, in our positivist and medical philanthropy, in the form of our current psychiatric hospitals.

  • madness
  • medicine
  • symbolism
  • allegory
  • Bosch (Jerome)
  • Bruegel the Elder (Pieter Bruegel)
  • Vinci (Leonardo)
  • photography
  • Rembrandt
  • surrealism


Marie-Noëlle DANJOU, Reason and madness, Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. "Psychoanalysis and Civilization", 2001.Michel FOUCAULT, History of madness in the classical age, Paris, Plon, 1961 Jean GILLIBERT, Madness and creation, Seyssel, Editions du Champ Vallon, 1990. Jean THUILLIER, Madness. History and dictionary, Paris, Robert Laffont, coll. "Books", 1996.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "Madness: from allegory to photographic evidence"

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