Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 2, 2017
Laurinda S. Dixon The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500–1700 University Park: Penn State University Press, 2013. 264 pp.; 62 color ills.; 77 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9780271059365)

In a brief epilogue to The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500–1700, Laurinda Dixon connects the “nerds” and “geeks” of today’s culture with the intellectual tradition that is her primary subject (190). From medieval ascetics to Renaissance stargazers, intellectuals of the past, like their modern counterparts, were often considered oddballs whose unconventional ideas were greeted as more deluded or dangerous than transformational. From ancient Greece to the birth of modern psychology, philosophers and physicians attempted to explain the somber moods and social isolation typical of many intellectuals as symptoms of a disease known as melancholia.

In the long history of machismo (not a concept addressed by Dixon, although maybe it should be), the vita activa (high school quarterback, condottiere) has always accrued more street cred than the vita contemplativa (hermit, scholar, software engineer). In the seventeenth century, however, melancholia was an exclusively masculine condition that became associated not only with intellectual engagement but also with prestige and social privilege. (Similar symptoms experienced by women were diagnosed as hypochondria, as explored in Dixon’s earlier book, Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine, Ithaca: Cornell, 1995). Ironically, the poster child for this condition is the (muscular and possibly self-referential) female personification in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514), an engraving whose complex iconography inspired the foundational study of this topic by Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl: Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (New York: Basic Books and London: Nelson, 1964). Dixon acknowledges their analysis as fundamental to her own approach, and in her study, too, Dürer’s print becomes the pictorial formulation against which all others are measured.

Akin to our contemporary concept of depression but far more complex, melancholia was understood in early modern Europe to be caused by an imbalance of the four humoral substances (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) circulating through the body. As described by Dixon, an overabundance of combustible black bile caused the melancholic to see the world through a “splenetic haze” of dark fumes that clouded his vision and brought on fits of sadness and inertia. Yet, the melancholic could also be capable of intense study, creative imagination, and profound insight. The book’s oscillation between the positive and negative connotations of the condition sometimes results in self-contradictory arguments, but for the most part this conundrum is handled deftly.

Dixon’s ostensible project is to examine how melancholia and its sufferers were represented in European art of the early modern period (ca. 1500–1700), with an emphasis on Dutch art of the seventeenth century, which she sees as the apogee of this pictorial tradition. But The Dark Side of Genius is much more than an iconographic or visual survey: it presents a solidly researched, interdisciplinary synthesis of early modern thinking about melancholia as a medical and cultural condition. Encompassing this broad theme in 192 pages of text (plus appendices) sometimes necessitates skimming the surface, but the extensive bibliography opens the way for further inquiry. Dixon lists over 350 dissertations on melancholia completed at European universities between 1590 and 1750 as testament to the pervasive interest in the topic among early modern intellectuals themselves, and her clear prose is richly supported with quotations from period sources ranging from medieval manuscripts to Elizabethan poetry, Neoplatonic philosophy, and medical treatises. She sometimes pulls sources from one region to explain images from another, and while this might trouble some purists, she asserts (rightly) that scholars across early modern Europe constituted an intellectual community with Latin as its lingua franca. She also makes a strong case for close cultural ties between England and the Netherlands in order to reconstruct a context in which Dutch artists produced the richest pictorial record while England became the true seat of melancholia as a cultural phenomenon; indeed, the malady came to be called “the English disease” (29). No original text on melancholia was written in Dutch in the seventeenth century (30) while by far the most influential book was written in English: Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621 and still available today (over fifty editions were published in the nineteenth century, a period when, as Dixon describes in her epilogue, Romantics rescued the melancholic mystique from rejection by Enlightenment rationalists).

Beginning with an introduction that traces the history of the concept from its origins in antiquity, Dixon examines three kinds of melancholia and the social types who embodied it: religious melancholy (hermit saints and religious scholars such as Jerome, as represented by artists such as Dürer and Rembrandt), love melancholy or erotomania (central here is the English portrait miniature, in which the lover’s gaze can set the heart aflame), and scholarly melancholy (pictured, for instance, in Dutch genre scenes of dejected students smoking when they should be studying). Chapter 5 discusses artists’ self-portraits, in which aspects of all three types may be invoked. Dixon shows how the imagery of the studio was calculated to balance the astrological tradition identifying artists as “children of Mercury,” renowned for their diligence and craftsmanship, with evidence of their social superiority as “children of Saturn,” gifted with the suffering and insight that were the privilege of melancholia. This amounts to an alternative way of describing the early modern campaign for recognition of painting as a liberal art. While Dixon’s interpretations often provide fresh insights into familiar works, she has a tendency to see every shadowed face, thoughtful pose, or heavy cloak as an expression of melancholia. Surely not all who chose to adopt a sober demeanor were genuinely “exhausted” (a favorite adjective) by inner turmoil, or intended to cast themselves as such; cheeky young artists such as Dirk Helmbreker (fig. 88) and Barent Fabritius (fig. 103) seem to display a latent energy and parodic wit while posing purely for effect. Fewer examples, or a deeper reading of some, might have strengthened the analysis.

For those seeking to cure or at least temper their melancholia, prescribed remedies included music, sunshine, country air, sex, physical exercise, and the contemplation of art. As explored in chapter 6, cultivating a soothing environment was also recommended; this leads to a survey of accoutrements that furnished the artist’s atelier and the gentleman-scholar’s studiolo. Music was widely touted as the most effective cure, but only when played on stringed instruments (socially superior in their refinement) (146). For Dixon, the melancholic associations of motifs such as a violin or a pastoral landscape shed light on genre scenes by Jan Vermeer and others. Paradoxically, many remedies could also be dangerous: women, for instance, could drive men mad with desire or despair, but the mere sight of an attractive girl was thought to lift the spirits (162), and a dutiful wife was the perfect muse. Moderation emerges as the key to health, supporting an effort to bring the humors back into balance. The blend of medical, literary, and art-historical learning and lore underpinning Dixon’s analysis of this topic is typical of the interdisciplinary erudition demonstrated in this lucid and engaging study.

Stephanie S. Dickey
Professor of Art History and Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen’s University