Feeling blue: A pictorial history of melancholy

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Taking in the Melancholie exhibit opening Thursday at the Grand Palais in Paris — surrounded by hundreds of glum, gloomy and downright deranged figures depicted in works spanning the entire arc of Western art history — is not exactly an uplifting experience.
But it does offer an unprecedented window into the evolution of that special kind of moodiness which, over time, has been associated with Satanic forces, genius, creativity, insanity and — in the era of Freud — plain old depression.

Composed of more than 250 works, Melancholy: genius and madness in the West brings together "masterpieces miraculously lent" by 50 museums in France and around the world, said curator Jean Clair.

From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Durer to William Blake, Goya to Delacroix, van Gogh to Picasso, and right on up to contemporary works from the beginning of the 21st century, the exhibit traces the evolution of the concept of melancholy as it was seen, and often lived, by some of the West's greatest artists.

It is a long story. Even the ancient Greeks brooded over the ambiguous nature of the dark mood that sometimes seized lesser and great men alike. Hippocrates attributed it to an imbalance in the "four humors," one of which was "melancholia" — literally "black bile."

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