W. von Kaulbach

Das Narrenhaus 1834

In the 19th century psychiatrists tried to capture typologies of the mentally ill into drawings. Das Narrenhaus, a series of etches by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, is an artistic interpretation as well as a correct scientific presentation of the different mental disorders.

To a certain extent, images of the mentally ill reflect their position in society. Diabolic possession is implied in mediaeval works of art. It had not fully faded away during the Baroque era. In the Romantic age, the insane were depicted as isolated creative personalities.

In the 19th century, scientific representations of the mentally ill were also made. The mentally ill became patients. Psychiatrists tried to bring some order to the multitude of syndromes through typologies in drawings and later on also in photographs.

In a sense, Das Narrenhaus, a series of etches made by Wilhelm von Kaulbach in 1834, is situated somewhere  in between. His aim was artistic, but his work was also much appreciated in psychiatry because of the scientific correctness with which he depicted the various mental disorders. Das Narrenhaus is rooted in the physiognomy of that time, as von Kaulbach interpreted the individual features as characteristics of insanity. The religious maniac, the melancholic, the sexual deviant and the imaginary king all got a place. According to some, von Kaulbach, who is believed to have been mentally ill himself, also gave himself a place among other mentally ill individuals.