Exhibit explores the art, science of a Victorian-era disease

L.A. Cicero verge_clairehoriz

Claire Perry, curator of American art, reclines on a Victorian-era fainting couch installed as part of an exhibit exploring health issues for 19th-century women.

Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center Young Girl Seated

Thomas Wilmer Dewing's Young Girl Seated is on view as part of an exhibition that examines Victorian-era women diagnosed with "neurasthenia."

Part of the story told in the Cantor Arts Center exhibit Women on the Verge: The Culture of Neurasthenia in 19th-Century America, can be found in a small group of paintings by American artists—including Thomas Eakins and Thomas Wilmer Dewing—depicting thin, very pale women enveloped in melancholy and ennui.

Another part of the story resides on the pages of century-old medical journals, which chronicle the symptoms and treatment of patients diagnosed as suffering from the disorder called "neurasthenia." The diagnosis, obsolete in the United States since the 1920s, described a cluster of maladies gathered under the umbrella of "nervous illness," which 19th-century doctors believed disproportionately afflicted middle- and upper-class women. For females, rest and sedatives most often were prescribed.

The art and science of neurasthenia came together during a conversation between Claire Perry, curator of American art, and Dr. Katherine Williams, a staff physician and co-director of the Women's Wellness Clinic. Williams, who specializes in women's mental health issues, has a long-standing interest in the history of medicine. Perry holds a doctorate in art history from Stanford and is an expert in the cultural history of the United States during the 19th century.

The two women "got on the topic of neurasthenia," Perry said. During the Gilded Age, at the height of a national obsession about the disorder, fine artists and commercial illustrators generated a profusion of images of idle, introspective women appearing to manifest the physical symptoms of illness, Perry told Williams. The idea for a collaborative exhibit examining the 19th-century diagnosis in the context of art and social history was born.

It proved to be a rich theme, encompassing literature, education, gender, class and the limits of 19th-century medicine, among other things. Williams and Perry worked with art history doctoral student Amanda Glesman to organize the exhibit. The three women "had to keep roping ourselves back in," Perry said.

In the decades following the Civil War, "Americans came to believe that stresses accompanying modern industrial society were detrimental to physical health," Perry wrote in materials that accompany the exhibit. The leading 19th-century medical expert on neurasthenia blamed, among other things, clocks, the telegraph, railway travel, the "brain work" of office tasks and advanced academic study for straining the American nervous system, she wrote. At the same time, the role of American women was changing, as they began to attend colleges and universities, entered new careers and began to lobby for women's rights and suffrage, she wrote.

Included among paintings loaned for the exhibit by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is Young Girl Seated (1896) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, which depicts an elegantly attired young woman projecting an air of weary self-absorption. Artist John White Alexander, whose work also is represented, was a confirmed neurasthenic who believed that "one's conception of beauty depends largely on one's mood, the condition of one's nerves [and] one's circulation and digestion."

The exhibit also includes prints and advertising images, pages from medical journals and women's diaries—and a bottle of Lydia E. Pinkham's compound, first sold for "the worst form of Female Complaints" in 1875. ("I would have loved to have had more medicine bottles," Perry said. "There were scads of things that were sold.")

Along with portraits of sedentary women, the exhibit displays images such as Charles Dana's 1896 illustration The Coming Conflict, which shows a robust woman in pantaloons outrunning a male athlete. The rift between the two visions of femininity—one listless, the other bursting with life—was one of many indications that women were on the brink of redefining themselves, an exhibit panel noted.

"Neurasthenia can be seen as a drama between patients and doctors, played out on the verge of a new century," Williams wrote in an essay that appears in the illustrated catalog published by the museum to accompany the exhibition.

In her research, Williams, who previously studied "green sickness," a now-obsolete diagnosis given to female patients beginning in the 16th century, pored over hundreds of medical journal entries describing female patients diagnosed with neurasthenia. "I like try to figure out what happened to illnesses and what they would be called today—I had lots of fun in Lane Library," she said.

In the old journals, Williams found recorded a multitude of symptoms that today would signal to doctors the presence of medical illnesses including chronic fatigue, anorexia, multiple sclerosis, severe anemia and thyroid disease. The diagnosis of neurasthenia, which was a kind of a "catchall," also had a strong psychological component, Williams said. "It was quite striking to go back and read the original descriptions. There was a lot of emotional distress."

In her review of case records, Williams found that the diagnosis of neurasthenia clearly included what today are known as mood disorders. Modern research shows that during their reproductive years, women suffer from depression at roughly two times the rate of men, Williams said. In contrast to their 19th-century counterparts, medical practitioners now try to "proactively untangle" the risk of mood disorders in women "rather than talk about it in a pejorative way," she said.

It was fascinating for her to look at medicine through the lens of art, said Williams, who said she was "not even a very visual person." But she was struck by how the careful observation by artists of their subjects resembled the care and attention to appearance of patients that is demanded of good medical clinicians. "The skills of an artist truly are the skills we try to teach a medical student."

The exhibit is on display at Cantor Arts Center through Feb. 6, 2005. For information, call 723-4177.