This dramatic and fascinating painting is famous not so much for its artist and what it depicts, but where it’s been displayed, and by whom. A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière was painted in 1887 by André Brouillet, a scene painter who was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme–one of my favorite artists and whose work has appeared on this blog before, most notably here (though also here as well). The Salpêtrière was a famous research hospital in Paris in the late 19th century. In the scene a number of famous doctors of the time, including neurology pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot, are examining a woman suffering from “hysteria”–a catch-all psychological diagnosis of the time, which is in fact a highly gendered and pejorative term which was used to describe behavior thought endemic to women. All of the doctors and even the nurses depicted here were real people who were active in the Paris medical scene at this time.
The original of A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière drifted around France for many decades, eventually winding up at Descartes University where it hangs today. However, the picture is very famous because a reproduction of it–a lithograph produced right after it was painted–hung on the wall of the office of one Dr. Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psychotherapy. Freud loved this picture so much that it hung on the wall of his office for his entire career. When he fled Austria in 1938 after Hitler took over that country in the Anschluss, Freud took his copy of the picture with him and hung it on the wall of his new office in London. Freud died in 1939 just three weeks after the outbreak of World War II.
I’ve been reading a lot about Freud lately, as well as his arch-rival Carl Jung, and their fascinating theories on psychology. Substantively I think Freud’s theories are utter rubbish, and I think Jung was on to something with at least parts of his philosophy; but you can’t deny that Freud had an amazing life and was quite influential in the intellectual history of the 20th century. The fact that this very cool painting is a part of his milieu is just another interesting little detail.
For his part, Brouillet, the artist, was not very distinguished. I’m not sure what else he painted, though I’m curious to find out. He died in 1914.
In Freudian terms I’m not sure what my interest in this painting says about me. Do I secretly hate my mother? Does it represent the transference of my superego and projection of my sexual hang-ups? You be the judge.