Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 9, 2005
Zachary Ross Women on the Verge: The Culture of Neurasthenia in Nineteenth-Century America Exh. cat. Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, 2003. 86 pp.; 19 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. $24.95 (0937031259)
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., October 20, 2004–February 6, 2005
Henry Ossawa Tanner. Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1897?. Oil on fiberboard. 22 3/8 x 18 7/8 in. From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 1983.95.211.

A mysterious illness spread throughout the United States following the end of the Civil War. Symptoms varied from person to person but generally included diminished powers of concentration, decreased appetite, and overall decline in the level of physical energy. The Boston medical doctor George Beard identified the disease as neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, in 1869 and attributed its sudden appearance to rapid urbanization and industrialization. In the decades following Beard’s diagnosis, the American medical establishment refined the list of symptoms associated with neurasthenia and established a variety of treatments for it, from patent medicines to bedrest to vigorous exercise. Although in theory any man or woman was susceptible to the disease, medical authorities believed middle- and upper-class women were especially at risk because their reproductive systems as well as their emotional and intellectual makeup made it difficult for them to adjust to modern life. Today, neurasthenia is a diagnosis of the past, its symptoms now attributed to specific biological and psychological conditions. But in the final decades of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, neurasthenia was a specter that haunted elite American women, a potentially debilitating illness.

Women on the Verge: The Culture of Neurasthenia in Nineteenth-Century America brought together period paintings, texts, and prints to explore neurasthenia as a gendered cultural phenomenon and a fashionable index of class identity. The exhibition contained a dozen or so paintings (most on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by some of America’s best-known late-nineteenth-century artists, including Thomas Eakins, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Eastman Johnson, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing. Each painting represents an apparently healthy young woman according to a similar set of conventions: contemplative downcast gaze, downward-tilted head, and a slouching posture, all of which seems intended to convey mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. These canvases were hung on the four walls of a medium-size gallery and bracketed by clusters of original and facsimile texts and prints from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from medical treatises to patent medicine advertisements to illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson Girl. These items addressed specific aspects of neurasthenia and the lives of women living at the end of the nineteenth century, including examination of the emergence of the neurasthenic female after the Civil War, neurasthenia as a women’s disease, alternative models of femininity that coexisted alongside the neurasthenic woman, nineteenth-century treatments of the disease, and present-day medical diagnoses of the symptoms attributed to neurasthenics. By situating the paintings with text and prints, the exhibition cast the women represented by these artists in a new light, permitting us to see their subjects as women who suffered.

Particularly striking and memorable was the gallery itself, which was decorated like a late-Victorian domestic interior. The gallery’s four walls were papered with patterned yellow wallpaper, and the floor was covered with plush carpeting. Within the room were a birdcage, flower arrangements set out on tables, and Victorian-era sofa and chairs. This setting visually and historically unified the diverse paintings, prints, and texts on display, presenting neurasthenia within the material environment of the middle- and upper-class women, precisely those women who were believed to have been most susceptible to the illness. The wallpaper specifically evoked Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s 1892 autobiographic story The Yellow Wallpaper, copies of which were set out on the furniture in the room for museum-goers to peruse. In the book, Perkins describes how the patterned yellow wallpaper in the room where she was confined as part of a rest cure—a remedy typically prescribed to women suffering from neurasthenia—served to induce hallucinations and further hastened her mental decline. Although the gallery was certainly not a historically accurate re-creation of an 1880s parlor, visitors were invited to rest on the furniture, experiencing for themselves how the Victorian cult of domesticity may have contributed to the rise of neurasthenia as well as judging the effectiveness of a cure that consisted of confinement to a Victorian bedroom covered with similarly patterned yellow wallpaper. This hybrid exhibition space—at once an art-museum gallery, a historical-society presentation of American visual and material culture, and a period room in a Victorian house museum—was an unexpected surprise within a traditional art museum and vividly dramatized the social and cultural context of neurasthenia.

This unorthodox exhibition in turn revised time-honored interpretations of late-nineteenth-century American art. By including paintings by different artists who nonetheless represented women according to similar conventions, the exhibition established a commonality among artists that transcended the specifics of their careers, in this case an awareness of and interest in the neurasthenic female. Although the particular artistic concerns of individual artists were often mentioned in wall labels, artistic biography was not a structuring principle of the exhibition. Nor was the show a chronological narrative: when these paintings were juxtaposed with period prints and texts, they appeared as a subset of pictorial and textual representations devoted to the neurasthenic female, who was herself a phenomenon unique to this period in American history. The curators evidently learned lessons from past revisionist exhibitions of American art, because they did not present the neurasthenic female as the only type of woman found in America at the end of the nineteenth century. Prints of the Gibson Girl, a young, energetic, and thoroughly modern young woman invented in the 1890s by the American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, reminded visitors that gender identity and roles were fluid. Furthermore, the women represented in the paintings on view were all white and, presumably, middle or upper class, which underscored the reality that neurasthenia was not a naturally occurring illness. Instead, the disease appears to have been at least in part a social construction, one that potentially served to keep in place those women who, by virtue of wealth and social position, had the most potential to move into the public sphere, to empower themselves, and to better the lives of all women. The exhibition thus implied that different forms of knowledge and cultural production are often united by their interest in the body, a contested site intimately implicated in the struggle for social privilege and power.

The visitors I observed at Women on the Verge did not appear to pick up on many of these points when viewing the exhibition. Most examined the paintings and prints with a good deal more interest than the texts, primarily because it was difficult to read the small print of a text as one bent over a glass vitrine (although this is often a problem with exhibitions that include visual culture). None seemed to make the connection between the yellow wallpaper in the gallery and Perkins’s text. Viewers also seemed unfazed by the fact that the exhibition included many facsimiles, rather than originals, of the prints and texts. While modern facsimiles do present the same information as originals, their inclusion detracted somewhat from the Victorian sensibility the curators worked so hard to establish by including nineteenth-century furnishings. Perhaps most problematic, however, was the fact that museum-goers generally regarded the paintings on view as frank illustrations of neurasthenic females, rather than as works of art produced by artists who were motivated by myriad aesthetic concerns. In part, their one-sided reading of the paintings was a function of the exhibition itself, which asked viewers to see them through a specific historical filter. Fortunately, the broader concerns of the artists included in the exhibition are addressed in an essay in the exhibition catalogue. The catalogue also includes four additional essays that explore other aspects of the show, including: the history of the illness and the current treatment of the symptoms that were once associated with it; the Gibson Girl and turn-of-the-century definitions of femininity; the representation of neurasthenia in the portraiture of Thomas Eakins; and how the illness figured into changing constructions of American female identity.

Finally, as I sat on the Victorian-era sofa and observed visitors, I could not help noticing how they responded to the show differently according to their gender. Women generally found this show much more compelling than men, who, to judge by their reactions, seemed mostly amused by this historical phenomena and quickly moved on to the next gallery. Perhaps these women were more interested because they, unlike their male companions—but like their Victorian great-grandmothers—are more likely to be diagnosed with gender-specific illnesses such as Anxiety Disorder, Panic Attack Syndrome, and even Irritable Bowl Syndrome, to name but a few of the diagnoses that today’s medical establishment overwhelmingly attributes to women.

Kevin R. Muller
independent scholar