Art and History: The Golden Age of Psychology

Often artwork from the period being studied makes the topic all the more fascinating. For the turn of the century, I love those lithographic line drawings they used to make. It’s a huge shame they don’t still make them anymore for modern art. Often, they were used in newspapers and literature. In studying about insane asylums and mental diseases, many have made line drawings of the patients and their conditions, in addition to photographs, which were very recent at the time. Many are quite detailed!

Image result for salpetriere hysteria patients  Image result for hysteria patient

I got inspired to try to make some of my own artwork that looks like theirs too! I read more sources on doctors describing many asylums and how to care for the patients, and came across some amusing stories. Unfortunately, they did not come with illustrations, so I used my imagination and drew some of the scenes! These were inspired by some passages in a book called “A Treatise on the Nature, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Insanity” by William Charles Ellis, an alienist from the early to mid 1800’s. He and his wife ran an asylum called the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in England. In the book, he describes some interesting stories involving patients. Here are two of them with my illustrations:

Many years ago, when the workmen were fitting up the asylum at Wakefield with gas-pipes, one of them carelessly left, in one of the wards, an iron chisel more than three feet long. A very powerful and violent patient seized it, and threatened to kill any one that should go near him. Keepers and patients all got out of his way, and he alone was soon in possession of the gallery, no one daring- to go near him. After waiting a little time, until he was at the further end of it, I went towards him quite alone. I opened the door, and balancing the key of the ward on the back of my hand, walked very slowly towards him, looking intently upon it. His attention was immediately attracted ; he came towards me, and inquired what I was doing. I told him I was trying to balance the key, and said at the same time that he could not balance the chisel in the same way, on the back of his hand. He immediately placed it there ; and extending his hand with the chisel upon it, I took it off very quietly, and without making any comment. Though he seemed a little chagrined at having lost his weapon, he made no attempt to regain it, and in a short time the irritation passed away… (P. 222)


“I opened the door, and balancing the key on the back of my hand, walked very slowly towards him, looking intently upon it.”

H. R., a female about forty years of age, had been insane for some years when admitted. She was a very robust woman, and being usually in a state of excitement, was the terror of all the patients in the ward, when not in confinement… The advantage of presence of mind and apparent confidence in the patients, when from circumstances placed in their power, during a paroxysm, was strikingly exemplified in the conduct of my wife towards this patient. In one of her most furious ebullitions of passion she contrived to seize her, and to twist her hand in her hair at the back of her head, and she looked at her with a countenance expressive of the utmost rage, and told her, that she could “twist her head round;” which, from her great strength, was almost literally the truth : when my wife answered, with perfect calmness, “Yes, you could; but I know you would not hurt a single hair.” This confident appeal pacified her, and she immediately quitted her hold. (P. 223-224)


“Yes you could, but I know you would not hurt a single hair.”

Lastly, I incorporated a scene from another book, “A Visit to Thirteen Asylums for the Insane in Europe” by another alienist, Pliny Earle. I heard about William Charles Ellis, through Earle’s book, as Earle held Ellis in high regard and quoted the story about the clever trick to get the chisel away from the agitated patient as testimony to his skill in handling the insane. Earle toured many asylums in Europe and in America and wrote about them in his book. This story comes from his visit to the asylum at Bicêtre, a bit south from Paris.

In one of the wards which we first entered, a merry patient, seeing us approach, took his violin for the purpose of giving his physician a musical entertainment. He followed us through the ward, playing several lively airs, and when we were about to leave, insisted upon accompanying us. The doctor permitted him so to do, and he followed us, constantly playing upon his fiddle, through most of the remaining wards. (P. 35)


“The doctor permitted him to do so, and he followed us, constantly playing upon his fiddle, through most of the remaining wards.”

As a bonus, I also drew a clinical example of a hysteric fit, as often times, the doctors showed off their patients at clinical lectures, and purposely induced their fits for all to see. I was inspired by the famous painting of Jean Martin Charcot, a prominent neurologist who studied hysteria with a patient in a hysterical fit as other doctors looked on. A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière




About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
This entry was posted in Art and History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Modern History. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Art and History: The Golden Age of Psychology

  1. Retrojackie says:

    Fascinating topic! I like the way you presented it with a light hearted approach! Great drawings too!

    Sent from my iPhone



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