Siobhan Sexton


Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861-1942) is rarely included in histories of late nineteenth-century French art, despite his prolific career as an artist who produced over 2,000 paintings. A portraitist, Blanche’s upbringing as the son of an eminent psychiatrist provided him with a wealth of sitters connected to his father’s fashionable clinic and, I argue, a distinctive approach to their representation. These relatively unstudied portraits of famous Parisian intellectuals and socialites deserve our attention as works of ‘psychological impressionism’. Combining penetrating observation with painterly execution, Blanche’s methods emphasised the ‘nervous’ disposition of his sitters. Blanche’s practice as a portraitist is one of the reasons for his neglect. His contemporaries were evasive when it came to writing about the genre, uncertain of how to evaluate it – a critical apprehension that has persisted to this day. Art historians are as implicated in what may be thought of as a hesitation around the status and significance of portraiture in late-nineteenth-century French art. The thesis seeks in part to redress this through its examination of Blanche’s portraits as intuitive works of art that not only reflected but also, more actively, produced particular forms of knowledge about the ‘nervous’ condition of Parisian high society. With a focus on Blanche’s depictions of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and the Comtesse de Castiglione (1837-1899), the thesis considers Blanche’s ‘neurasthenic portraits’ in relation to discourses on modern psychiatry, modernity, and modern art, drawing attention to how they enrich our understanding of the social, cultural and artistic contexts in which Blanche lived and worked. By situating Blanche’s artistic practice within his father’s clinical practice, and by embracing a methodology that draws upon both the histories of art and psychiatry, I argue that the language of Blanche’s portraiture was environmentally connected to the language of nervous disorder. As such this thesis will provide an original contribution to the scholarship on Blanche and offer significant insights into the entanglement of art, culture and nerves in nineteenth-century Paris.

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