Posted by: mackenzielibbey | October 9, 2014

Charcot and la Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière

Hey, guys, remember when we discussed Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in class? Remember when we unanimously agreed that the Duke’s instinct to immortalize the behavior he found so offensive in his “last duchess” as a demonstration of ownership and a warning to his future duchesses made him a terrible (probably murderous) creep?

Well, I recently learned about someone who might give Browning’s Duke a run for his money in the terrible creep department. In my anthropology of psychiatry class, we recently began a unit that deals with issues of gender and madness. As I read through Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 (1987), I came across the photographs of Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot treated primarily female “hysterics” at La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in the mid 1800s and is credited as being one of the first physicians to acknowledge that hysterical symptoms were beyond women’s conscious control. He is also credited with developing a hypnosis treatment for hysteria. Oh, and he staged photos of patients experiencing hysterical “attacks” and published the photos in three volumes called la Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière.

During his lifetime, even, Charcot was accused of staging the photos to make them visually pleasing and having patients act out symptoms at public lectures so that he could demonstrate the efficacy of his treatment. My question is, though, was this display of feminine mental illness about asserting Charcot’s psychiatric prowess or something else? I’m inclined to think that his motives were somewhat similar to those of the Duke. As Showalter notes in her book, manifestations of anorexia, neurasthenia, and hysteria in Victorian women could be understood as “mental pathology [as] suppressed rebellion” (147). Noting the possible danger of such behavior, the patriarchal (read: misogynstic) psychiatric community shuffled to regain control of the female image. Charcot’s photographs literally capture the disconcerting behavior of hysterical women and yet still manage to make that behavior aesthetically appealing. For me, the subtext the photographs is similar to that of Frà Pandolf’s painting and the Duke’s description: assertion of ownership that subsumes the women’s threatening, transgressive behavior and a warning to other women to avoid the same fate.

I found some of the photographs and I’d love to know what you guys think of them:

Salpetriere_3_39 Salpetriere_3_06 Salpetriere_1_08 Salpetriere_3_34 Salpetriere_1_09 Salpetriere_2_09

I accessed these photos here and there’s a whole, eerie gallery if you’re interested:

All info about Charcot’s practices came from The Female Malady.


  1. Thanks for linking to the Charcot gallery. These are definitely eerie photographs, and I think that your connection to Browning’s poem is compelling. This formulation is terrific — “assertion of ownership that subsumes the women’s threatening, transgressive behavior and a warning to other women to avoid the same fate.”

  2. The forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Society of Medicine Library is entitled: Charcot, Hysteria, & La Salpêtrière
    It runs from 3 May 2016 – 23 July 2016
    Admission free
    Open to all

    Jean Martin Charcot (1825 – 1893) was appointed physician to the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris in 1862 and remained working there for the rest of his professional life. This exhibition concentrates on Charcot’s controversial theories regarding hysteria, the patients at the Salpêtrière who were diagnosed with this problematic condition, and its depiction in the visual arts especially photography.

    Robert Greenwood
    Heritage Officer
    The Royal Society of Medicine Library
    1 Wimpole Street

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