How a biologist turned amateur sleuth to solve a century-old art riddle | Painting

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On a sizzling summer time night time in 2018, Javier Burgos stayed up late on his pc. His spouse and daughters had been already asleep when he determined to do one other spherical of Google searches. This time the biologist’s quest to unravel a century-old artwork riddle took him to a 2013 exhibition in Ravenna, Italy.

Burgos dully watched the primary seconds of a video of the present when one thing caught his eye. When he paused the video, the nonetheless picture confirmed a museum wall hung with two portraits. He recognised one in all them, a Nineteenth-century portray known as Le Medecin Chef de l’Asile de Bouffon by Théodore Géricault, one of many masters of French romanticism. However the different portrait was new to him.

It confirmed a person frowning, with unhappy eyes staring on the void. The portray was largely darkish aside from the lit-up face, the impact highlighting the topic’s very pale pores and skin. To Burgos, the craft and the colors prompt once more the hand of Gericáult, however this portray was not within the catalogues raisonées that record the recognized artworks of a painter. He felt a shiver of pleasure.

The thriller that Burgos, who works at Valencia’s Jaume I College, was making an attempt to unravel traces again to the winter of 1822, when a psychiatrist named Étienne-Jean Georget commissioned Géricault to supply portraits of a few of his sufferers.

Georget and different French clinicians of the Nineteenth century had been among the many first to method the causes of madness in a scientific trend. They created a brand new method of classifying psychological sicknesses and wrote lengthy treaties describing their sufferers. These authors argued that madness could possibly be attributable to “monomania – a pathological obsession round a single thought, comparable to ingesting alcohol, playing or stealing. Additionally they believed that it was potential to diagnose it by analysing an individual’s facial features.

Whereas this area of science is essentially discredited at present, its concepts had been in style for a couple of many years. With Géricault’s portraits, Georget in all probability needed to maintain visible data of some case-studies of those monomanias.

When Georget died, the collection was misplaced – till 1863, when French historian Louis Vardiot rediscovered 5 of the work. They had been in an attic within the German metropolis of Baden-Baden and belonged to one in all Georget’s disciples, recognized solely as Physician Lachèze.

Immediately these work are exhibited in 5 museums around the globe. Consultants reward them as a few of Géricault’s finest works of his last years, painted after his acclaimed masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa, and only a few years earlier than his loss of life. The dignity and rigour with which he portrayed the sufferers, and the truth that the collection bridges artwork and science, make these 5 work extraordinary.

Javier Burgos spotted The Melancholic Man in an exhibition in Ravenna, Italy and believes it is by Théodore Géricault.
Burgos noticed The Melancholic Man in an exhibition in Ravenna, and believes it’s by Géricault. {Photograph}: Javier S Burgos/Actual Press

However in response to Vardiot, there have been 10 monomanias in whole. After Georget’s loss of life, 5 of them had been acquired by Lachèze and the opposite 5 by one other of Georget’s disciples, a physician known as Marèchal. No one knew what had occurred to the second lot.

Burgos was instantly drawn to this story. As an artwork aficionado and a biologist who conducts analysis into Alzheimer’s illness, it mixed his two greatest pursuits, artwork and neurology.

“If the work existed, the place had been they? I began investigating, and one factor led to a different. Looking for them was nearly a logical determination,” Burgos mentioned.

Over the subsequent months he visited museums, browsed artwork catalogues and browse the psychiatric treaties written by Georget and his colleagues in the hunt for clues – all in useless, till that summer time night time, when he lastly discovered a promising lead. He managed to acquire the exhibition catalogue and confirmed the portray had certainly been attributed to Géricault. The title was additionally revealing: Portrait of a Man. Homo Melancholicus.

Melancholy was a well known monomania, which prompt the portrait could possibly be one of many lacking work of the collection. Burgos discovered extra proof for this. He famous that the topic was carrying one thing that resembled a liturgical vestment, and that his hair appeared tonsured. In keeping with the previous psychiatry texts, spiritual fanaticism was one of many causes of melancholy.

With nice efforts, he was in a position to contact the proprietor of the portray, a personal collector in Italy. To his shock, they supplied to indicate him the portray. “They had been very beneficiant, they even let me maintain the portray, a portray that’s price tens of millions,” remembers Burgos. “It was a beautiful day that modified my life.”

Captivated with artwork however with no first-hand information of its industrial facet, he printed his findings within the medical journal The Lancet Neurology. And only a few months later, he acquired an e mail from a gallerist in Versailles. He’d learn the article and had an analogous portrait which is also a monomania. Burgos flew to France to fulfill him.

This new portrait, which isn’t formally recognised as a Géricault portray, confirmed a bearded middle-aged man carrying a hat and a white shirt. One of many first issues that struck Burgos was that the shirt was unbuttoned. The monomania collection was painted in the course of the winter and all sufferers put on heat garments. Burgos and the gallerist speculated that this portray might characterize the monomania of drunkenness. The psychiatry texts famous that sufferers with this monomania skilled abnormally excessive physique temperature. Burgos recognized different parts to assist this view: the redness of the cheeks, wounds within the brow and the truth that the person is carrying a winter hat.

However there was one thing else. At the back of the portray, a handwritten word in French learn: “This portrait of an insane man painted by Géricault was given to me by the widow of D Maréchal in 1866, Paris, 9 November, Louis Lemaire”. A chemical evaluation of the word dates it within the second half of the Nineteenth century. In 2022, Burgos printed this second discovering in the identical medical journal.

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Burgos believes Portrait of a man called Vendéen is part of the monomania series.
Burgos believes Portrait of a Man Called Vendéen is part of the monomania series. Photograph: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Finally, earlier this year, Burgos claimed that a third painting, called Portrait of a Man Called Vendéen, was also part of the series. Unlike the other two, which are owned by private collectors, this painting is currently exhibited in the Louvre museum and recognised as being painted by Géricault. It shows a man with a light beard wearing a large hat and a blue coat. His face is only partially illuminated and he is looking to his right.

Burgos had noted this painting was similar in size and style to the monomanias, but was aware that experts didn’t consider it to be part of the series. He wanted to know why and investigated their catalogues. There, he began to find inconsistencies.

“Philippe Grunchec wrote in 1978 that the Vendéen was different in size to the known monomanias, which is obviously wrong. And he cited Klaus Berger’s 1955 catalogue to support the idea that the painting is not part of the series,” said Burgos. “Berger did say the painting was not part of the series, but he didn’t provide any evidence, he simply cited another expert, René Doumic.”

Doumic had written a review on the Vendéen in 1938, after the Louvre acquired the painting. When Burgos read it, he was surprised to see that Doumic had actually gone to great lengths to argue that the painting was likely a monomania. Only in the last paragraphs, he speculated about other possibilities.

Once reassured that the painting could indeed be part of the series, he went again to the psychiatry texts. In one of them, he found a description of a 30-year-old man from the city of Vendée “who does not let himself be shaved”. This man had lived in his childhood the political revolt against the French Revolution, a well-documented episode known as the “war of Vendée”. As a consequence, the text said, he had developed the monomania of “political strife”.

“It all matched, the size, the style, the dates and the medical description,” said Burgos, who for the third time published his conclusion in The Lancet Neurology.

Most art experts have met these findings with silence. Gregor Wedekind, a professor for modern and contemporary art history at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, calls the story “problematic” and says: “There is no serious art historical debate about it.”

Wedekind casts doubts on the authenticity of the first two paintings. He argues that without more information on their origin and more thorough analyses, they can’t be assigned to Géricault or the monomania series. He calls for “critical caution” regarding the handwritten note, explaining that such documents “are very common and just as unreliable as supposed original signatures”. And says that Burgos’ credentials and arguments on the Vendéen are insufficient to ascribe the painting to the monomanias. “This is simply not enough,” he said.

Burgos is not worried about the lack of impact of his findings in the art world and believes that time will prove him right. “I would love it if someone published a paper about one of the three paintings confirming or refuting my findings, so we could start a high level academic discussion about this,” he said, noting that it’s still early days for that. “But I think it will happen at some point.”

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