By John Enasko ‘17
Art is the medium in which a specific moment can be captured and studied. The people, culture, and beliefs can all be found if one wishes to wrap their head around the piece of art and its symbolism. So many people find art therapy to be a beneficial treatment because it takes an idea or notion from someone’s head and turn it into something physical, whether it be a painting, piece of writing, or drawing. Looking at this piece of their trauma and troubles from another perspective allows one to come to turns with their own dilemma. Knowing that art therapy holds a significant role in the treatment of numerous individuals, it makes it very clear that we can now closely analyze any piece of art in order to study the frame of mind and culture that influenced its creation. Joseph-Marie Vien’s Sweet Melancholy provides an excellent example of a piece of art that contains an array of areas to study to learn more about the time in which the piece was created. Characterized as a deep, emotional sadness, melancholy was considered a real disease that could be treated. It affected a variety of people, but mostly women. Vien’s portrayal of the person being afflicted is a women, which also holds a variety of cultural implications. Vien’s painting Sweet Melancholy gives an in depth look at the disease of melancholy and from that, inferences can be made on why it was mostly associated with women.
From the perspective of a medical doctor in the 1700’s, melancholy was a disease caused by the disruption of the balance between the four humors. These were said to control every disease and problem with a human. Any change or addition of these humors could cause a person to be completely different than before. Samuel Johnson best defined melancholy as “A disease, supposed to proceed from a redundancy of black bile; but it is better known to arise from too heavy and too viscid blood: its cure is in evacuation, nervous medicines, and powerful stimuli” (56). There were various treatments to try to help individuals with this disease. They often included trying to draw black bile from the stomach (Geppart 24). This actually often led to death because people would attempt to draw a fluid from the body and damage internal organs, leading to internal bleeding. Another common form of treatment was the use of religion to try to cast out the evil that was causing this disease to occur. Religion (Christianity in this case) was used for many diseases in this time period. Because melancholy brought the victim a deep, lingering sense of dread and despair, it was thought that a demon from Hell might be causing the person to feel a dramatic amount of sloth. Immersing the person with holy artifacts, it was thought, would make the person so blessed that the demon would leave their body at once.
Something else interesting about melancholy is the type of sadness that melancholy is. This sadness was a disease that made the sick feel completely useless. It was almost a sadness that removed any sense of importance from life. Quite simply, melancholy gave its victims the unbelievable feeling that whatever they did, it would not be positive. This had to have been a horrible feeling for many of the individuals that suffered through it. Many would have doctors attempting to cure them when in reality they were harming them. If they held melancholy over their living situation it was near impossible to leave because of the culture of the time.
For many cases, melancholy was simply just a sadness (Geppart 25). But for many it was an actual case of clinical depression. The doctors of the time did not have treatment for depression because they did not have medicines that could affect the actual mind of an individual. What is most interesting, however, about melancholy, is the culture behind it.
It is curious to see the cultural implications in this piece of art as well, specifically what this piece of art tells on the position of women during this time period. It is a well-known fact that women have been a group of people discriminated against for thousands of years. What is most unknown about this is the culture that made for such discrimination for women. Much of the sorrow of women during the 1700’s was because of their lack of social mobility. The most a woman could do was marry up. From this point on they were stuck in their situation (Kant 34). One possible explanation for the melancholy for the woman in the painting could be that her love has left her or has passed away. This was very often a real life sorrow for many women of the time. For a number of years women would be told that they would marry a man. Many women hoped to escape the blankness of their current life and go on to married life (not particularly paying attention to the fact that married life would become just as boring and bleak).
The reason why melancholy was often associated with women is because they were seen as weak (Kerr 23). All throughout Christian history, women were seen as being much more inclined to turn to sin than men. Because it was often thought that melancholy was caused by demons, it made sense to many people that women could often suffer from melancholy. Men were seen as a necessity for women because it kept them holy. One can infer that the real reason for this judgment is because men wanted to have more status than women and have someone to dominate. It is also worth to note that much of the religious background of the time had much to do with this lack of regard toward women, because The Bible discusses how women are supposed to be the eager assistants of man.
This painting clearly has a lot of historical and medicinal implications. It illustrates a disease that was felt by many when something sad occurred in their lives. Though many doctors tried to cure it, it was not until the invention of modern medicine could people with severe mental illnesses feel relief. The superstition and lore behind the disease connect with the lack of regard for women. The so called “weakness” of women could be accounted for their tendency to receive this illness and become depressed so quickly. This weakness led them to move towards Satan. This painting proves the importance and wealth of information a piece of art can hold within it.
Geppart, Cynthia. Melancholia. New York: Cambridge Press, 2006. Print.
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. London: Cambridge Press, 1996. Online
Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John T. Goldthwait. University of California Press, 1961. Print.
Kerr, Michael. Curing Melancholy. New York: Puffin, 2005. Print.