Stendhal Syndrome at the National Portrait Gallery by
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Not the National Portrait Gallery, but the Musee Stendhal

I hadn’t heard of this syndrome before it happened to me. At first I was surprised, but then later understood why it happened to me. But to begin at the beginning.

I hadn't heard of this syndrome before it happened to me. At first I was surprised, but then later understood why it happened to me.

Art has always been a part of my life, even though I have no specific talent for drawing and painting. My mother was a painter, and I grew up surrounded by canvases, drawing paper and pens, and pastels. I recall the smell of oil paints and turpentine. I couldn’t wait until my senior year in high school, when I could take a year-long arts survey course, taught by Mr. Kuhns, a diminutive, quirky man who did needlepoint as a hobby. We did a unit on music (but nothing later than Franz Liszt), but my clear favorite was European painting. I loved looking at slide after slide.

My fascination continued at Mills, where I took one or two art history courses per semester, starting with an intro called Seven Major Artists. Other than struggling through architecture terms while studying Bernini, I loved it, and decided to do a minor in art history to complement my English major. I enjoyed going to the de Young Museum to look closely at paintings and write about them.

One of my professors, Wanda Corn, made her courses especially fun by having her students create an end-of-term party based on the era we were studying. We made costumes, selected music, prepared food, and conducted era-appropriate entertainment. A highlight was the neoclassical course, when we put on tableaux vivants. My classmate Crystal, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Madame Recamier, looked amazing as she leaned across the famous fainting couch (often called a recamier), just like in the painting by David.

While I was a student, Mills was on a 4-1-4 schedule. We had a fall and a spring semester, and in the January term took one intensive course. We were offered the chance to study away from campus, and I worked summers and weekends so that, in my junior year, I could go to Europe for a month to study theater. It turned out to be an amazing month, attending class in the morning, sightseeing in the afternoon, and going to plays at night. We spent the first week in Paris. Naturally I wanted to spend sightseeing time at art museums. Because it was January, many museums were closed, but the Louvre was open. Although I practically trotted through it, I did see the Mona Lisa (from rather far away).

The next week we went to London for the remainder of our trip. On my first sightseeing afternoon I went to the National Gallery and wandered into a small hallway where I could practically touch the exquisite Arnolfini wedding portrait by Jan van Eyck. What excitement! So, I didn’t think anything of it when, a day or two later, I went to the National Portrait Gallery. I entered and crossed the threshold to a large room, completely filled with portraits by Rembrandt. I’d never seen so many portraits, let alone so many Rembrandts, in one place.

I took a few steps and suddenly the room seemed out of focus and my knees became weak. I sank to the floor, kneeling and fortunately still conscious. Two security guards came over and helped me up, then guided me to a bench. “Another one with Stendhal syndrome,” one of the guards said. “Huh?” I asked. “Just relax, luv,” he replied. “Every so often it happens to a body. You’ll be fine soon.” The other guard added, “This happened to the writer Stendhal, which is why they call it by his name. It’s when a person becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art.”

I’d read Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, in French to boot, but didn’t know about the syndrome. It is a psychosomatic (I prefer the term mind-body) reaction to visual beauty. At this point in my London trip there were so many more museums I wanted to visit. Would this happen again? After resting for a while on the bench in the Rembrandt room, I continued, somewhat deliberately, through most of the museum. A few days later I toured the Tate and admired all the Turners without incident, and I didn’t experience the Stendhal syndrome again during the rest of the trip.

As it turns out, I’ve never had Stendhal syndrome since, despite having visited and enjoyed many art museums in the US, Europe, and Thailand. Although I thought about the syndrome right before I went to the Picasso and Miro Museums (the Miro Museum is one of my all-time favorites) in Barcelona, once I got there I never felt at risk for a minute. Why I had Stendhal syndrome that day in London’s National Portrait Gallery I’ll never know, but the experience reinforced that I felt deeply, and viscerally, about art and its beauty.


Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a beautiful story by a true lover of art, Marian. I could feel your passion for great paintings and love how your reaction was labeled the Stendhal syndrome. Now, I have to think back to know if I ever experienced it.

  2. OMG Marian, what a strange and fascinating phenomenon!

    But I can’t think of anything more like dying and going to heaven than spending a month in Paris and London studying theatre and museum-hopping!
    Lucky you!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is GREAT, Marian! Who knew that such a thing existed? I confess, I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s David, truly overcome by its beauty and that I was finally seeing it up close, in person. Is that similar?

    This sounded like a fantastic term abroad, filled with wonderful sights and opportunities to learn. I also love your description of your end-of-term party based on the era you studied. How clever and fun!

    • Marian says:

      You certainly had an emotional reaction, Betsy, maybe a bit of the syndrome. Wanda Corn went on to be a professor at Stanford and curator at the Whitney. I loved her structuring an event that used all the senses.

  4. Fascinating story, Mare…and good for you! I would be proud to swoon in the presence of great art (even once). Makes me wonder if you’ve heard of synesthesia and whether you might have experienced it. It’s when you can taste colors. Another neurological condition I wish I could experience!

  5. This was a very compelling narrative that flowed with meaningful and well chosen details from senior year in high school through college through explorations as an adult. I like the narrative technique of beginning with the climactic moment–the Stendhal syndrome–and then going back in time before providing the explanation. A well executed essay in all respects. And by the way, if one is to have any syndrome or condition, what could be more glorious than having one named after an illustrious author (and provided one has it just the once)!

  6. P.S. Je lisais les poetes comme Verlaine et Baudelaire en francais, et le Petit Prince de St. Exupery et des pieces de theatre (e.g., Moliere) Mais Le Rouge et Le Noir en francais! Oh, la la! Quelle accomplissement!

    • Marian says:

      Alors, c’etait tres difficile, et maintenant je ne rappele rien sauf le nom Julien Sorel. J’adore le Petit Prince. Pardon any errors in my French, it’s been a very long time since I’ve tried to write!

  7. John Shutkin says:

    Amazing story, Marian. And, ignoramus that I am, I had never heard of Stendahl Syndrome before — and certainly never had it. (Stockhold Syndrome I do know, however.)

    That said, and passing the inherent danger f passing out, what an exaquisite syndrome to “suffer” from. And it neurologically confirms what fine aesthetic taste you truly have. (I wonder if anyone fakes it and then “swoons” on his/her fainting couch.)

  8. Suzy says:

    I did not know about the Stendhal Syndrome either, although I do not consider myself an ignoramus (so there, John!). Glad to learn about it, and about your one experience with it. I can just hear the guards at the Gallery explaining it to you in their British accents. I agree with all who said that a month-long course studying theatre in Paris and London sounds like heaven. And I just noticed that your featured image is not the National Portrait Gallery, but the Musee Stendhal – how fitting! Have you been there? Do you think one is more likely to suffer from the syndrome there?

    • Marian says:

      Alas, we’d already left Paris by the time I’d had the Stendhal syndrome, or I definitely would have tried to visit the Musee Stendhal. I haven’t been back to Paris, unfortunately. I guess the “attacks” aren’t predictable. While I was Googling around I found that there had been a movie about the Stendhal syndrome (probably not very good), where the heroine, who often gets it, is locked in the Uffizi, and drama ensues. I have never been to Florence and hope to get there, but that’s the place where I’d have the most concern about it happening because of the sheer concentration and beauty of the art.

  9. Risa Nye says:

    Fascinating! And a little scary! The Galleria Borghese in Rome nearly made me swoon. Today I learned something new about Stendhal syndrome!

  10. Dave Ventre says:

    The nearest I ever came to Stendhal Syndrome was walking into the Milwaukee Museum of Art for the first time. The building is one of Santiago Cavatrava’s most famous works. It’s cool and technically amazing and sort of amusing from the outside, but something that he achieved with the interior just stopped me in my tracks. The word “awe” doesn’t come close….

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