Wednesday 22 January 2020

How Stendhal’s Syndrome fuelled my writing by Drēma Drudge #HistoricalFiction #amwriting @dremadrudge

How Stendhal’s Syndrome 
fuelled my writing.
By Drēma Drudge
My husband and I, both writers, were thrilled to be celebrating our twentieth anniversary in Rome. We adore art and everywhere we looked in the city were statues and paintings. It was heady. But as we moved about the art-laden St. Peter’s Basilica, suddenly we were before La Pieta, the statue of Mary and Jesus by Michelangelo. In all of the wonders we had seen, I had forgotten it was at the Basilica.
Without realizing it, upon seeing it I swayed, and my husband had to catch me and lead me to a bench. I was overcome with wonder and awe. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me in a museum, but when we got home, I began doing some research to finally figure out why. It turns out I suffer from Stendhal’s Syndrome.

La Pieta.

Stendhal’s Syndrome was named after the French author Marie-Henri Beyle, who used the pen name Stendhal. He wrote about his unexpected episode of euphoria while visiting Florence in 1817. He described feeling ecstatic, having visions, and heart palpitations in the presence of art from just being in the city of some of the world’s greatest artists. 


Though the phenomenon has been observed for quite some time, it was only named in 1979 by a doctor who had treated numerous patients with it in Florence, a capital of art and architecture.
More recently, according to Wikipedia, in 2018 a man was so overcome by seeing the Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus that he had a heart attack. 
While I have been fortunate enough not to have had a heart attack, I have suffered with the other symptoms of Stendhal’s Syndrome: confusion, feeling faint, agitation, and a rapid pulse.
There is some disagreement in the psychological community as to whether it truly exists, but since it happened to me without me even knowing it existed, I’d say that’s proof of a sort.
Those who do see it as a legitimate condition think there is some connection between viewing art and the emotions. Medical staff in Florence in particular are accustomed to treating affected art viewers.
For me, the experience is blissful. There’s nothing that feels like being overwhelmed and overtaken by a work of art.
When I saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence for the first time, I wasn’t expecting what happened. I felt faint. I cried copiously, not wanting to leave. In that state of mind I wondered how I could move to Florence so I could become a caretaker of David, so that I could ensure he was cared for properly. (There is no rationality to Stendhal’s Syndrome.).
Eventually I was convinced by the tour guide that, tears and all, I must move on, but I was unhappy to leave and made no secret of it.


These feelings have happened to me, too, in Chicago at the Art Institute, in Toledo while viewing a Manet exhibition, and, as I said, in front of David, though I suppose that makes me a Stendhal’s Syndrome cliché.
At the Art Institute, I was stricken by Henri Matisse’s painting of Olga Meerson, a woman who turned out to be a painter herself. Based on this experience, I wrote a short story about her which became my first published fiction. It was published in a literary journal, and I was thrilled that this thing that could have just been embarrassing had become positive to my writing.
My extreme zeal for art has continued to fuel my work. My first novel is about such an artwork: Olympia, by Edouard Manet, a painting that struck me still in Paris and demanded to be looked at until I had memorized nearly every stroke. I felt compelled to learn more about the painting, about the model, and that led to my novel. I’m grateful for the inspiration, and I have a whole host of topics following that one to write about.  


When I suffer an “art attack,” I often want to write more and examine the object of art more to see what it is that has overtaken me. Why did I have that reaction to that piece of art? It leads me to a world of writing that I can get lost in. I enjoy it.
I’m not sorry at all to have such strong reactions to art, though I do sometimes warn those I’m going with if they haven’t seen it happen to me. And it doesn’t always happen. It’s unpredictable, though if I’m excited ahead of time about what I anticipate seeing, chances are more likely I will react. Art fuels my writing. I’ve learned to appreciate my extreme affinity for it.
It’s like being in love, but while standing on the ledge of a very tall building. My heart pounds; sometimes I cry. I feel faint, overwhelmed. I have to leave the area until I compose myself and then I return and remain rooted until forced to move on. And yet I’m irresistibly drawn back to whatever work of art is moving me, whether in person or online until I’ve processed it, usually by writing. Sometimes I have to stare at photos of it or talk nonstop about it. Since this has already given me a short story and a novel, not to mention tons of ideas, I’m grateful for Stendhal’s Syndrome, and I’d argue it certainly exists.

Drema and her husband, Barry, in front of the Trevi Fountain.


By Drema Drudge

In 1863 Civil War is raging in the United States Victorine Meurent is posing nude, in Paris, for paintings that will be heralded as the beginning of modern art: Manet s Olympia and Picnic on the Grass. However, Victorine s persistent desire is not to be a model but to be a painter herself. In order to live authentically, she finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy.


I am called The Shrimp, Le Crevette because of my height and because I am as scrappy as those little question-mark-shaped delights that I used to study when my father took me to Les Halles. I would stand before the shrimp tank and watch the wee creatures paw at the water, repeatedly attempting to scale the tank, swimming, sinking, yet always rising again. I hoped eagerly for one to crest the tank, not realizing until later that the lid was there precisely to prevent their escape. 

So why am I reminded of that tank today?
Today, while I am giving a guitar lesson in my father’s lithography shop, the gifted yet controversial painter, Édouard Manet, enters the shop. He gives me the nod.

I cover the strings of my guitar with my hand to silence them.
Pѐre has mentioned Manet’s recent patronage of his shop, of course, but I have never been here when the artist has come by.

"M. Manet, this is my daughter, Victorine. I believe you’ve. . . ."

"We've met," I say. 

"And where is it we have met, Mademoiselle?" he asks, wincing as he looks in the vicinity of my nose.

Is this a snub? I run my hand over the swollen, crooked lump of flesh on my face.

"I must be mistaken." I turn away, smiling bitterly at my quick temper, at my trying to turn up a nose such as this. Of course he doesn’t recognize me.

I motion for my student to put her guitar away: “That’s enough for today, dear.” Though she looks at the clock with a puzzled brow, she does as I say.

My father graciously allows me to give lessons in his shop, claiming he loves to hear young musicians learning to play, though I suspect it’s more because my mother hates allowing anyone into our house besides her regular millinery clients.

Manet moves toward me, puts his face close to mine; I don’t pull away, but only because that is the way painters see.  I would have punched another man for standing so close. He snaps his fingers. "Le Crevette?” he exclaims, backs away.
I raise my chin to regard the posters on my father’s wall. The Compagnie Francaise de Chocolats et des thes declares my father’s fine sense of color, his signature mingling of coral and scarlet. The other posters reveal his repeated twinning of these colors.

Manet grasps my hand with frank friendliness that I almost believe. Want to believe. "It is you; I’ve seen you model at Coutoure’s. But what has happened to your nose?"

I rise on my toes, though the height it gives me is minimal. I motion for Gabrielle to gather her music, and she shuffles the sheets.

I move closer to him while withdrawing my hand from his, take out my emerald green enamel cigarette case (a gift from a wealthy student at Coutoure’s studio) and light a cigarette. I empty my lungs straight at the yellowing ceiling, though my torso is not a foot from his.

My father frowns and waves the smoke away; how many times must I tell him that I am eighteen and I will smoke if I please? He smokes a pipe sometimes. What’s the difference?

"I give guitar lessons now. Obviously, I'm no longer a model."
Manet’s eyes graze on me. I stand straighter. When I realize it, I relax.

"I know just how I’ll paint you. Shall we say tomorrow at one?"

My father runs his grungy shop cloth through his hands.

I raise my chin, art lust in my eyes.

"We shall say two."

He crooks his eyebrow. "Wear something else, will you? That frock does nothing for your apricot skin tone, much less your eyes. And wear your hair down…." He touches a section of my red hair that flows forward, and I jerk away. “No. Better wear it up.”

I glance down at my mud-colored calico dress, pick up my guitar case and make to lead my young charge out the door. 

“Meurent?” he says. I smile, erase it before turning back.

“Do you know where my studio is?”

“You may leave your card with my father.”

I am well aware of the opportunity I have been offered. If it weren’t for this trouble with Willie, I would be ecstatic. As it is, I am just a flicker beyond moved.

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Release Date March 17, 2020

Drema Drudge

Drēma Drudge suffers from Stendhal’s Syndrome, the condition in which one becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art. She attended Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she learned to transform that intensity into fiction.
Drēma has been writing in one capacity or another since she was nine, starting with terrible poems and graduating to melodramatic stories in junior high that her classmates passed around literature class.
She and her husband, musician and writer Barry Drudge, live in Indiana where they record their biweekly podcast, Writing All the Things, when not traveling. Her first novel, Victorine, was literally written in five countries while she and her husband wandered the globe. The pair has two grown children.
In addition to writing fiction, Drema has served as a writing coach, freelance writer, and educator. She’s represented by literary agent Lisa Gallagher of Defiore and Company.

Connect with Drema: WebsiteTwitterInstagramThe Painted Word Salon.

Contact me at if you’d like me to speak at your event, class, or book club, either in person or by Skype.

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating. I have never heard of Stendhal’s Syndrome, but I am so glad that it has moved you to write about these figures in art. Your excerpt is tres intrigant (if that's wrong, blame Google translate)! I am so excited to read this book!


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx