An exhibit at Stanford University called, Women on the Verge: The Culture of Neurasthenia in Nineteenth Century America, examines how women were perceived and portrayed during the mid and late 1800s, and how certain representations were linked to ‘the national preoccupation with neurasthenia.’

“Paintings of women showing the physical signs of neurasthenia, or ‘nervous illness’ were an important component of the culture of neurasthenia, that evolved at the turn of the century. The portrayals avoided explicit reference to neurasthenia, the sad eyes, slouched posture, and general lassitude of the subjects were immediately recognizable to contemporary audiences as markers of neurasthenia. The paintings usually depicted women of the upper class, who were shown as they reclined and ruminated in elegant interiors, gazing into space with expressions that communicated dreaminess, boredom and melancholy. Such portrayals helped to imbue the illness with the cachet of the social elite, as well as to define it as an affliction of women.”

LEFT: Walter Launt Palmer, De Forest Interior, 1878, o/c, 24 1/8 x 18.

From American Art Review, Vol.XV1, No.6, 2004. Illustration from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.