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Cover for the book The Dark Side of Genius

The Dark Side of Genius

The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500–1700 Laurinda S. Dixon
  • Copyright: 2013
  • Dimensions: 9 x 10
  • Page Count: 264 pages
  • Illustrations: 62 color/77 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-05935-8

Hardcover Edition: $89.95Add to Cart

Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association

“Laurinda Dixon brilliantly illuminates melancholy, the dark mental condition, which was both feared and sought by artists and writers in early modern Europe. Her comprehensive history insightfully explores social attitudes about creativity and madness in art, literature, and medicine.”
“The first comprehensive study of melancholia in early modern Europe, The Dark Side of Genius is original and fascinating. Musicologists, gender scholars, religious studies specialists, art historians, and historians of science will benefit greatly from this intriguing and invaluable book. Laurinda Dixon sheds new light on religious melancholia, love melancholia, scholarly melancholy, and artists who are melancholics, and she ends with a discussion of the syndrome's cure. Her book explores many long-neglected texts and images, and it is written clearly, concisely, and in a lively manner. The book, in short, is a pleasure to read.”
“Laurinda Dixon’s carefully developed examination of the various types of melancholia establishes the ways in which visual culture appropriated the discourse on melancholy into a wide range of artistic work. Brilliantly incisive and fully interdisciplinary, this book poses new ways of interpreting artworks across the centuries. Readers will be eternally grateful to Dixon for her mastery of a complex theoretical approach and for making it possible to see thematic relationships in a new way. The book is an absolute triumph, combining the erudition of a deeply engaged scholar with the creative imagination of an artist.”
“Today denoting a temporary sadness or state of pensive reflection, melancholy was traditionally understood as a serious affliction of the intellectually gifted, especially religious contemplatives, scholars, and artists. In her comprehensive and well-documented survey, Laurinda Dixon traces the development of melancholy as a medical concept from its origins in ancient Greece and explores its expression in the visual arts with a wealth of illustrations. Dixon also shows how melancholia became a ‘stylish disease,’ its visual manifestations adopted by frustrated lovers, by Rembrandt and other artists in their self-portraits, and by those who aspired to a comparably privileged status. An epilogue traces the gradual extinction of melancholia as a medical concept in the eighteenth century, and its brief revival by the Romantic artists of the nineteenth. Dixon’s fascinating account of melancholia is a major contribution to our understanding of early modern Western culture.”

In The Dark Side of Genius, Laurinda Dixon examines “melancholia” as a philosophical, medical, and social phenomenon in early modern art. Once considered to have a physical and psychic disorder, the melancholic combined positive aspects of genius and breeding with the negative qualities of depression and obsession. By focusing on four exemplary archetypes—the hermit, lover, scholar, and artist—this study reveals that, despite advances in art and science, the idea of the dispirited intellectual continues to function metaphorically as a locus for society’s fears and tensions.

The Dark Side of Genius uniquely identifies allusions to melancholia in works of art that have never before been interpreted in this way. It is also the first book to integrate visual imagery, music, and literature within the social contexts inhabited by the melancholic personality. By labeling themselves as melancholic, artists created and defined a new elite identity; their self-worth did not depend on noble blood or material wealth, but rather on talent and intellect. By manipulating stylistic elements and iconography, artists from Dürer to Rembrandt appealed to an early modern audience whose gaze was trained to discern the invisible internal self by means of external appearances and allusions. Today the melancholic persona, crafted in response to the alienating and depersonalizing forces of the modern world, persists as an embodiment of withdrawn, introverted genius.

Laurinda S. Dixon is Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: The Problem of Melancholia

1 Saturn’s Privileged Realm: Meaning and Melancholy

2 Privileged Piety: Religious Melancholy

3 Privileged Passion: Love Melancholy

4 Privileged Work: Scholarly Melancholy

5 A Privileged Profession: Artists and Melancholy

6 Wine, Women, and Song: Melancholy Mediated

Epilogue: Melancholia Denied and Revived

Appendix: Medical Dissertations on Melancholia and Related Subjects, ca. 1590–1750




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