Foucault on Frans Hals, The Regents and the History of Madness

In his 1971 interview with Fons Elders, rediscovered and then padded out to form a small book entitled Freedom and Knowledge, Foucault says that publishers have tended to illustrate his work on madness with Bruegel, Bosch and Goya. But he has another painting in mind: Frans Hals, The Regents.

In the above, edited, video there is a brief discussion around 2 minutes in.

The painting is found, in a fairly poor quality black and white reproduction, in the 1972 Gallimard edition of Histoire de la folie. As far as I’m aware it is not in any other French or English editions, and it is not discussed in the book.


Frans Hals – De regentessen van het oudemannenhuis” by Frans Hals (1582/1583–1666) – licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Here’s what Foucault says in the published interview with Elders:

So from here, well, if I were asked to illustrate with visual art the history of madness, I would not choose what my publishers ordinarily choose for the covers of my books. In general they pick Bruegel, Bosch, sometimes they choose Goya. That is not what I would choose. The problem basically is to show the transition from Bruegel to Goya; that is, how we moved from a certain experience of madness, which was, as it were, an objective experience. Madness was characterized with bizarre and imaginary figures that traveled the world, passed through it, and swarmed there; such was the experience of madness in the 16th century. And in the 19th century we see the emergence with Goya, with Fuseli, with Blake, of the subjective expression, as if it were from within madness, of what the mad feel, which Bruegel did not know.

Having come now into broad daylight, it’s as if we could finally see, hear, know, what was inside of madness. How did such passage from Bruegel or Bosch to Goya, Fuseli and Blake happen? I would say that it is through an experience that found its pictorial expression in one of the most famous paintings of Dutch art, by Frans Hals, that is to say, in “The Regents”. It is in “The Regents” of the hospital that my historical research on madness is illustrated best. There around a table are these five old women whose job it is to hold, to run this house of imprisonment, where during the 17th and later during the 18th century, all socially worthless people, the troublemakers were imprisoned. These women are actually the expression of our society’s rationalization that sets madness apart.

At the center of the painting we see a closed hand-held fan. This is the symbol of all pleasures, of society’s futility folded up on itself, excluded. Looking at both sides [of the painting], we can also see on the right a woman holding her big register under her hand; that’s the accounting of life, of things. And on the left, we see a woman holding coins in her hand; that is, basically the West’s accounting economy. Together they hold back the experience of madness. And it is from here on that the science of madness was able to develop. My history of madness is indeed best illustrated from that Frans Hals painting.

As far as I’m aware, the only other (very brief) mention of Frans Hals by Foucault is in a 1972 interview ‘Le grande enfermement’, text 105 in Dits et ecrits. There is no published English translation, though one is forthcoming. There, Foucault describes it as ‘one of the most disturbing [bouleversants] pieces ever painted in the West’ (II, p. 296).

The only discussion I know is in the introduction to Gary Shapiro’s 2003 book Archaeologies of Vision. Shapiro rightly notes that the 1972 interview is around the time of the publication of the new edition of the book; the 1971 one is presumably around the time he was deciding on the material to be included and excised. Shapiro was writing before the publication of the Elders’ interview, so he had less Foucault on Hals to draw upon, but elaborates an interesting reading. Further references to secondary literature would be welcome – as well as corrections if I’ve missed any discussion by Foucault.

This entry was posted in Foucault: The Birth of Power, Michel Foucault, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Foucault on Frans Hals, The Regents and the History of Madness

  1. AlexC says:

    Not very relevant, maybe, for someone interested in F’s reading, but the picture was the object of an interesting debate for art history. A good presentation in Howells & Negreiros(2012): Visual culture (2nd edition) ch. 4.

  2. Pingback: Foucault: the Birth of Power Update 9 – restructuring the drafts of Chapters Four and Six | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: Top posts on Progressive Geographies this week | Progressive Geographies

  4. very interesting, thanks.

  5. theartofanthropologyblog says:

    Hi there, bit of a shot in the dark but I’m writing my dissertation on Foucault and Hals, and wondered if you had the book of the unpublished interview by fons elders, and could possibly upload some more of what is said in it? Can’t seem to find it anywhere or buy it anymore! Thanks

  6. theartofanthropologyblog says:

    Yes, I think so too. Would you possibly mind telling me the page numbers for the quotes you posted? It would be a great help!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s