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Art and Images in Psychiatry
June 2005

Hypnotic Session

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(6):588. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.588

Once I witnessed my magnetic friend’s attempt to put a young Danish woman to sleep among a small circle of friends by a dim light, on a damp summer’s evening in Sannois [France]—and the impression I got from her hard fight against the sleep gave me, along with the light and the environment, the first idea to paint a picture on this theme. But only a few years later. . . . magnetism had become hypnotism.—Richard Bergh, 18881

In 1843, Scottish surgeon James Braid (1795-1860) introduced the term hypnosis(from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep) and dismissed, by means of his experiments, the claims of the mesmerists of a “magnetic” force that is manipulated by the magnetizer to reestablish physiologic equilibrium and cure the sick. Mesmerism had fallen into disrepute in France in the previous century following the 1784 report of a royal commission. The Royal Commission on animal magnetism was appointed by Louis XVI and chaired by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).2 The commission rejected the mesmerists’ claims and suggested that when mesmerist practices worked, the therapeutic agent was not magnetism but the patient’s imagination. “No doubt the imagination of patients often greatly influences the cure of their maladies . . . in medicine faith saves; this faith is the product of the imagination: [it] acts only through gentle means; through spreading calm through the senses, through reestablishing the order in functions, in reanimating everything through hope.”2(p361)

Sven Richard Bergh (1858-1919), Swedish. Hypnotic Session, 1887. Oil on canvas, 153 × 195 cm. National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo credit: Erich Lessing, Art Resource, New York, NY.

Sven Richard Bergh (1858-1919), Swedish. Hypnotic Session, 1887. Oil on canvas, 153 × 195 cm. National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo credit: Erich Lessing, Art Resource, New York, NY.

Jean-Martin Charcot’s (1825-1893) 1882 paper, “On the various nervous states determined by hypnotization in Hysterics,” convinced the French Academy of Sciences, who had rejected magnetism 3 times in the past century, to now embrace his views and legitimize the scientific study of hypnosis. Charcot had become famous for his clinical demonstrations. Among those attending were the Swedish physician Axel Munthe (1857-1949) and the Swedish artist Richard Bergh (1858-1919), whom he admired. Bergh was a leader among the Swedish National Romantic painters and espoused a politically progressive art.3 He believed that art transforms the visible world through the expression of the imagination and feelings of the artist; it provides an emotional bridge between artist and viewer3 and must express the spirit of the times and the culture in which it is produced.

Bergh’s Hypnotic Session(original title, A Suggestion) draws on his early fascination with mesmerism and his newly evolving scientific interest in hypnosis. It is a dramatic demonstration and has a mystical quality about it, in contrast to Andre Brouillet’s A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière.4 That painting depicts Charcot’s experimental approach to hypnosis and hysteria. The physical distance in Brouillet’s work reflects emotional distance and intellectual objectivity—the space is large and impersonal—while in Bergh’s painting, viewers are drawn into the unfolding drama, made part of the small circle of intense observers.3 By diminishing the physical and emotional interval between subject and object, Bergh promoted empathy in the viewer.

Bergh’s intention was to represent the transition between psychic states to capture the moment when a hypnotizable woman relinquishes conscious self-control and in the next moment becomes a plaything in the hands of a magnetizer. Self-critically, Bergh indicates that the hypnotist is an Italian male model named Pignatelli who looks like a “magnetizer of the old school, half artist, half quack doctor, a charlatan, not like a modern doctor, who quietly and coolly carries out scientific observations.” He is pleased with the portraits of the observers, as were the critics at the time, especially with the young medical lady with the “surprised, lively, interested expression.”1 She is the Swedish artist Hanna Hirsch-Pauli,5 who was also interested in hypnosis.

Axel Munthe6 studied medicine and hypnosis at the Salpêtrière, was physician to the Swedish art community, and wrote about his experiences with hypnosis. Because of their mutual interest in hypnosis, it has been proposed that Munthe was either the hypnotist7 in Bergh’s painting or his mesmerist friend in Sannois.3 However, the hypnotist is not Axel Munthe, and there is no verification that Munthe was at Sannois. Munthe8 repudiated Charcot’s approach to hypnosis, allying with the views of Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919). He championed hypnosis for pain management when treating soldiers on the battlefield in World War I.

The scientific approach to treatment with hypnosis9 and research on hypnotic susceptibility continues. Hypnosis can be efficacious for pain relief, asthma, anxiety, and other conditions. Modern imaging techniques document its effects on altering brain functioning,10 and neuropsychological studies link it to understanding consciousness and conscious brain functioning.

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