The Theater of Hysteria: Pathologization of Female Excess in 19th Century Photography - Michaёlle Lahaye

December 6th, 2023


Most women I know – I included – have been called “crazy” at least once in their life. The first time it happens, it stings; the times after that, it sets off an eye roll at best. Although many of us have grown unimpressed by it, I find it interesting to pinpoint which situations trigger this insult to be thrown at a woman. Was she screaming in a public place? Was she dressed in an outfit deemed inappropriate for the context she found herself in? Was she exhibiting physical manifestations of a psychological illness? Was she disagreeing with a man and not letting go of her convictions? In any case, the crazy woman is viewed as crazy because she is disruptive to a certain status quo, id est the image of the respectable woman who must not cross the lines drawn by patriarchy. Mary Russo notably echoes this idea in her chef d’oeuvre The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity, as she states that the grotesque consists in a deviation from the norm.1 A grotesque woman is therefore qualified as so because she transcends a societal boundary, whether in a bodily or behavioral fashion. In other words, she is in a state of excess  – in word, movement or appearance.

In the context of psychiatry, female excess was once at the heart of great discussions surrounding female psychopathology. The famous notion of hysteria – today obsolete in the medical field but still uttered colloquially – was a popular topic of research in 19th century Western psychiatry that thoroughly influenced the ways in which women’s mental health would be perceived for the century to come. Etymologically originating from the word hystera, meaning “womb”, hysteria initially corresponded to the Ancient Greek idea that the displacement and movement of the uterus around the female body could trigger various kinds of disorders. Much like Russo’s grotesque woman, the 19th century hysteric woman exhibited emotional excesses, this time stemming from a neurological disorder that manifested itself through different symptoms, including great nervousness, amnesia, fainting spells, seizures and hallucinations, amongst others. What set the diagnosis of hysteria apart from those of other psychopathologies, however, was its speculative nature; it could only be characterized by its symptoms, making hysteria an elusive concept.2 It is because of this elusiveness that I consider female hysteria to have been the perfect playground for men of medicine to enact their misogyny, thus demonstrating the great presence of subjectivity in the scientific world. After all, the sheer sign of nervousness or erraticism in a woman was enough proof to qualify her as hysteric, pointing to the over-pathologization of female excess and “abnormal” behavior. Parallelly, the systematic character of this somewhat lazy, umbrella diagnosis hindered further inquiry and research into other possible reasons behind abnormal behavior. For example, the famous case of Bertha Pappenheim – popularly known as Anna O. – illustrates neurologists’ frequent carelessness when dealing with relevant information about female patients’ life experience, details which might speak about the presence of certain symptoms differently. Before her hysteria diagnosis, Pappenheim had tragically lost her father to a terrible illness, an event that triggered an onset of psychosomatic symptoms which, per modern research in psychiatry, would rather point to a post-traumatic stress disorder.3

In 19th century Western visual culture, imagery representing female excess and hysteric women mostly came out of medical institutions. I find the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, published in 1878, to be its most poignant and captivating example. Located in Paris, the long-standing Hôpital de la Salpêtrière was the cradle of research about female hysteria, to which acclaimed neurologist Jean-Marie Charcot immensely contributed. While at the Salpêtrière, Charcot was deeply interested in documenting the psychological “attacks” experienced by his hysteric patients through photographs, which he regrouped in the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière. This compendium of photographs taken by Paul Régnard was to fulfill didactic purposes, as Charcot considered it to be medical evidence that could serve in the teaching of neurology. Yet, when looking at these photographs, something seems not quite right, and with reason: they were all staged.4 To Charcot, however, the presence of an artistic touch in the photography process did not affect its evidentiary nature, as he still considered photographs to be “perfect [extensions] of a clinician’s eye”.5

Charcot and Régnard’s intentional dramatization of female excess psychopathology is most apparent in the photographs depicting Louise-Augustine Gleizes, a French teenager who was one of the “star” hysteria patients at the Salpêtrière. In the Iconographie’s short series of photographs titled Attitudes Passionnelles, an interned Gleize is seen either sitting or lying in a messy hospital bed, all while taking different theatrical poses that supposedly correspond to some of the personalities that she could exhibit during a hysteric attack. For example, in the photograph subtitled Extase (fig. 1), she is depicted looking up to the sky with a joyful, seemingly forced smile, as her hands are held up in an almost adorative fashion. In Crucifiement (fig. 2), she is stretched across the bed with her arms stiffly raised at head-level, mimicking the position of a crucified Christ. When pairing the dramatic aspect of Gleize’s body language in these photographs and their highly evocative titles, it becomes clear – at least to me – that there is an effort to typify the hysteric woman through these excessive, larger-than-life personalities. When looking at the photographs, I cannot help but wonder if female hysteria patients at the Salpêtrière truly exhibited these personalities as a result of psychopathology, or if they were merely constructed in an effort to sensationalize the research about female hysteria that was conducted at the Salpêtrière. In any case, the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière illuminates the vulnerability of female patients in psychiatric institutions, whose experience with institutionalization could be manipulated and exploited by men of medicine. Most importantly, the Iconographie promoted a factice representation of female excess through its dramatization of female psychopathology and, even beyond the walls of the sanitarium, framed the everyday, strange, “abnormal” woman as sick.

Yet, certain women reappropriated their experience with excess and psychopathology, embracing the idea of “hysteria as theatre”.6 Famous fin-de-siècle cabaret dancer and former Salpêtrière patient Jeanne-Louise Beaudon, commonly known by her anglicized stage name Jane Avril, notably employed the hysteric woman’s melodramatic personalities in her performances. Through her shows at the Moulin Rouge, she was known for her “neurotic” dancing style characterized by sudden movements, limb-thrashing and contortion-like poses, awarding her the nicknames l’Étrange, la Mélinite and Jane la Folle.7 In this fashion, she translated the performative aspect of the 19th century perspective on female hysteria into her career as a cabaret dancer, thus building her own identity – as a performer and as an individual – on her excesses. I find this idea to be especially illustrated in a photograph of Avril taken by Paul Sescau (fig. 3), where she is depicted standing with her torso twisted backwards in a cambré, her hands reaching for the back of her head as she gazes dreamily into the far background. Curiously, she is pictured wearing a costume featuring a snake-shaped jeweled appliqué wrapping around her body, which I read as mirroring the unpredictable, and perhaps visually threatening character of her performances.

When comparing Sescau’s photograph of Avril and the photograph series depicting Gleizes in the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, one can draw multiple parallels between the body language of the two subjects. For example, they both exhibit theatrical, melancholic poses and an absent gaze. Yet, I believe these depictions are different in a major way. Although some could argue that Avril’s use of the hysteric persona in her performances at the Moulin Rouge is simply another form of exploitation of female psychopathology, where the audience’s gaze transforms it into a spectacle, the setting strongly alters this effect. Unlike Gleizes, Avril is not strapped to a psychiatric institution’s bed while dressed in a flimsy, revealing robe, and coached to act “crazy” in front of misogynistic men of medicine and their camera. Instead, she is seen pursuing her passion for the performing arts and showcasing her own artistry, which is visibly infused with aspects of her life experience such as her time at the Salpêtrière. In other words, the weight of representation is not in a male neurologist’s hand but in her own, which consists in a stark difference considering the gender dynamics that were at play in French society in the 19th century; Avril’s excesses are still depicted as those of a mad woman but, at least, in her own artistic and financial gain.

When examining the history of psychiatry, and most especially of female hysteria, it becomes clear that female excess has long been over-pathologized. Still, it has been a source of great curiosity to men, who, after condemning it as a spectacle of abnormality and covering their face, voyeuristically watch it through the cracks of their fingers. To Charcot and the neurologists at the Salpêtrière, female excess was something to manipulate and typify. To Jane Avril, however, it was something to embrace through artistic practice. In any case, I believe that the modern woman who gets called “crazy” should refrain from being insulted. After all, it simply means that someone thought she was too much, and who said that being too much was a bad thing, anyway?

Works Cited
  1. Mary Russo, “Introduction”, in The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (New York and London: Routledge, 1994): 11.
  2. Mark S. Micale, “On the ‘Disappearance’ of Hysteria: A Study in the Clinical Deconstruction of a Diagnosis,” Isis 84, no. 3 (1993): 503-504.
  3. Diane Hunter, “Hysteria, Psychoanalysis and Feminism: The Case of Anna O.,” Feminist Studies 9, no. 3 (1983): 464-488.
  4. Iona Gilburt, “The Phototextual Emergence of Hysteria,” Kronos 46 (2020): 135.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Barry Stephenson, “Charcot’s Theatre of Hysteria,” Journal of Ritual Studies 15, no. 1 (2001): 27.
  7. Kathryn Hughes, “Jane Avril: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Muse,” The Telegraph, last modified June 11, 2011, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8563573/Jane-Avril-Toulouse-Lautrecs-muse.html.


Gilburt, Iona. “The Phototextual Emergence of Hysteria.” Kronos 46 (2020): 129-146.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Jane Avril: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Muse.” The Telegraph, last modified June 11, 2011. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8563573/Jane-Avril-Toulouse-Lautrecs-muse.html.

Hunter, Diane. “Hysteria, Psychoanalysis and Feminism: The Case of Anna O.” Feminist Studies 9, no. 3 (1983): 464-488.

Micale, Mark S. “On the ‘Disappearance’ of Hysteria: A Study in the Clinical Deconstruction of a Diagnosis.” Isis 84, no. 3 (1993): 496-526.

Russo, Mary. “Introduction.” In The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity, 1-20.  New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Stephenson, Barry. “Charcot’s Theatre of Hysteria.” Journal of Ritual Studies 15, no. 1 (2001): 27-37.

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