"Sketch of an Idea for Crazy Jane" by Richard Dadd
Richard Dadd’s Sketch of an Idea for Crazy Jane (1855) depicts his interpretation of the eponymous character from a popular ballad ‘Poor Crazy Jane’, in which a passer-by encounters a servant girl who has been abandoned by her lover and is wandering lost and mad. Crazy Jane also appeared in numerous other ballads of the 1800s, and much like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, became one of the archetypal figures of female madness in the Romantic imagination. She was portrayed as manic yet harmless; strangely beautiful yet an object of pity, as in her lament:
‘Now forlorn and broken hearted
And with frenzied thoughts beset,
On that spot where last we parted,
On that spot where first we met
Still I sing my lovelorn ditty
Still I slowly pace the plain,
While each passer by in pity
Cries God help thee Crazy Jane’
Dadd painted his Crazy Jane while a patient of Bethlem Royal Hospital. Once an established figure in the social and artistic circles of London, he had been at Bethlem since 1843, when he murdered his father in an episode of psychosis. Perhaps Dadd felt an affinity with the tragic outcast figure of Jane, or perhaps he was simply using her to make a study of mood: whatever his intention, the painting demonstrates both great understanding of design technicalities and great sensitivity towards the pathos of the subject.
Jane is foregrounded against a scene of distant Gothic ruins from which crows or ravens fly, her arms stretched diagonally across the page as if engaged in a forlorn dance. Her lumpy, ragged clothes are of faded browns and yellows that emphasise her poverty, while the sky is a muted wash of blue-grey. Dadd’s subtle handling of colour lends a melancholy and lyrical quality to the scene, as does his delicate handling of line. Jane clutches at a tangle of branches and vines that creep down her arms like a web she strains to escape from; her hair hangs limp like weeds. These fine details balance out the heaviness of her form, in particular her taught arm muscles (in fact, it is thought one of Dadd's fellow male patients was the model). But perhaps the most striking contrast in the image is the general wistful atmosphere against that of Jane’s intense dark stare, which fiercely meets our gaze as if to directly challenge our pity.
To watch Cornelia Parker discuss this painting and its influence on her work go to Objects of Obsession.