Albert Boime offers an explanation for Géricault’s “monomania” series, to which The Madwoman belongs:
“No mystery should exist in connection with Géricault’s five portraits of the insane. They were done for a specific purpose and correspond to the deepest aspirations of the patron, Etienne-Jean Georget, a former psychiatric intern at the Salpêtrière hospital and medical supervisor at a private asylum in Ivry. The so-called ‘mystery’ surrounding them arises less from ignorance of their point of origin (almost always intimated in scholarly discussion) than from the predilections of art historians primarily bent on locating the pictures somewhere appropriate in the overall production of the artist. Thus they are compared to previous depictions of the insane and singled out for their ‘historical novelty’, or are related to the painter’s consistently morbid preoccupation with themes of death and violence. The mystery quickly dissipates, however, as soon as the emphasis is shifted to the demands of the patron and the nascent psychiatric profession in its attempt to delineate its separate identity within a complex of other behavioral and clinical fields.”
“Géricault’s studies do not show outwardly deranged types at first glance but are visually coded as if their cognitive processes functioned normally. While the seedy and motley clothing gives the sitters a shabby appearance, nothing in the painter’s portraits betrays obvious signs of madness. Georget, however, the medical expert with long clinical experience knew what signs to look for and used this series for demonstration purposes. Since he channeled all his evidence of monomania for forensic purposes, I believe that this elaborate series was painted as further self-legitimating evidence for the efficacy of his diagnostic skills.”
Albert Boime, “Portraying Monomaniacs to Service the Alienist’s Monomania: Géricault and Georget,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 14, no. 1 (1991): 79 & 89.
Jonathan Crary offers his interpretation of “monomania” portraits, including The Madwoman :
“We are here a long way from Goya’s early contemporary renderings of the madhouse. The line between the normal and the pathological is made disturbingly indistinct. Seen from across a room, these pictures appear more or less congruent with the conventions of middle-class portraiture, and it is only on closer examination that one realizes something about them is different. A key feature of these images is the breakdown of a reciprocal gaze, not only the impossibility of a mutuality but a sense of the complete non-identity of worlds, the loss of a shared objective reality. Music historian Lawrence Kramer, in an essay on [Frédéric] Chopin, thematizes the first half of the nineteenth century as a time when ‘human subjectivity ceases to be a common field and becomes instead a secret recess. No longer a shared sameness, the self becomes an essential difference, constantly threatened with separation from the outer world.’ Here Géricault discloses that separation, that difference in extreme form. And it is alongside this shift that the need arises for at least a simulation of a real world experienced in common, that a preoccupation with the real emerges, eventually leading to whole industries of reality production taking shape in a rapidly modernizing West. Yet it is not just that the possibility of our eyes meeting the eyes of the insane is unthinkable here, because any reciprocity would include an unbearable moment of self-recognition and self-differentiation. Rather, it is that Géricault has recorded, with apparent clinical objectivity and detachment, individuals who were perceiving a hyperdelusional world. It is if they were optical instruments whose lens we never look through, but which, if we could, would reveal a radically different vision of the real. In a related way, Géricault was repeatedly drawn during his stay in England to architectural motifs that functioned as perceptual ‘black holes.’ He showed figures on the verge of entrances into dark unfathomable spaces that communicated nothing back to the observer except the shiver of an annihilating loss of redemptive possibilities.”
Jonathan Crary,” Géricault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Grey Room, no. 9 (Autumn 2002): 15-16.