Robert Riggs, Psychopathic Ward, a lithograph

United States of America, AD c1940 

Born in Decatur, Illinois, Robert Riggs (1896–1970) studied art firstly in Illinois and, from 1915, in New York. He served with the Red Cross in France during the later stages of the First World War. On his return to America, Riggs settled in Philadelphia and worked as a commercial artist. From 1932 he began to make lithographs, possibly inspired by an exhibition of George Bellows’ work held in Philadelphia the previous year. Of the 84 lithographs Riggs produced, some 55 were produced between 1932–1934.

Psychopathic Ward, Riggs’s best-known print, is based on his observations within the secure wards of the Philadelphia State Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where he made at least nine sketches. The lithograph comes from a set of four on hospital wards commissioned by the American pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline and French around 1940 as part of its advertising campaign. The lithographs, which also included a children’s orthopaedic ward and an accident and emergency ward, were intended to be sold to doctors for display in their waiting rooms.   

Rather than illustrating the successes of modern psychiatric care, in this print Riggs expresses through the inmates’agitated gestures the fragility of human mental health. Riggs repeats a theme which Bellows had earlier dealt with in his lithograph Dance in a Madhouse, made in 1917.

B. Bassham, The Lithographs of Robert Riggs (London, Philadelphia and Toronto, The Art Alliance Press and Associated University Presses, 1986)

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Height: 36.2 cm
Width: 47.8 cm

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