History Of Art Therapy Essays

Discuss the history of art therapy: Explore the significance of historical art movements and relevant artistic influences.

Historical events, movements, artists, doctors and psychoanalysts have influenced the professionalisation of the modern art therapy practice. Today art therapy involves the use of different art media made by the patient, which is expressed and reflected on, to work through personal issues and concerns that have brought them into therapy, and form a partnership of understanding and trust through the art object. The complexity of this subject means defining the network of theories and concepts underpinning art therapy is very difficult, but without these historical connections, art therapy would not be as advanced as it is presently.  As centuries have passed, moment by moment, succession has been reached, but to who or what do we hold accountability for this to happen? Picking just a handful of the greatest moments of impact to art therapy has been a hard task; extracting just some influences will give a broader overall view, time-lining the journey from the first mental asylums in the 1700s compared to the existent, giving examples of influential art movements and artists, as well as political figures and psychoanalysts whose theories are still in use nowadays.

Eighteenth century descriptions of mental asylums depict definitions of brutal and appalling conditions, ‘Men were chained, abused, and held in rigid confinement… to quench the spirit, to frighten them into their senses, to subdue and train, to overcome and tame the passions’ (Susan Hogan, 2001:35) which often ended in traumatic death. Francisco Goya was a painter who illustrated some of these disgusting conditions in his scenes, such as ‘The Madhouse at Saragossa’ in 1794. This depicted ‘a place of darkness, only partially lit, with the postures, gestures and expressions of the inmates indicating their pitiful condition… a dramatic and compassionate expression of the kind of scenes he saw in Saragossa.’ (Emil Kren and Daniel Marx, 2012) Although Goya did not have any influence on the change in the state of these ‘prisons’, his paintings represent an honest documentation of the journey from early asylums in comparison to today.
William Tuke was an influential character in the 1700s, who developed more humane methods in the care of people with mental disorders, an advance which came to be known by the end of this century as ‘moral treatment.’ In 1796, with the help of funding from friends, Quakers and physicians, he opened ‘The York Retreat’, a massive step in the humane treatment of the mentally unwell. Many people deserted him in his efforts, unable to contemplate these new concepts. Beginning to break free from the unsympathetic and brutalising conceptions of insanity, William Tuke was a significant influence in the moral treatment of patients with mental disorders. By the end of the eighteenth century many people still believed that religious therapies could cure madness, but an increasing popularity in the compassionate views towards this subject became apparent, ‘the mad were no longer seen as totally unreasonable but as having some reason that could be appealed to’ (Susan Hogan, 2001:36), the first step in neutralising territory between the sane and mentally unwell.

Following this influence, the nineteenth century saw a great change in the mental institutions’ system with a ‘Parliamentary Select Committee’ introduced in 1815-16, which had a particular importance in forcing members of The British Medical Profession to accommodate moral treatment within their therapeutics. This also stemmed the beginnings of artistic approaches introduced to patients in mental hospitals. William A. F. Browne was one of the leading psychiatrists encouraging this in the 1800s, by opening two mental hospitals in Scotland; Montrose Asylum (1834-1838) in Angus and later, Crichton Royal in Dumfries (1838-1857). These would be two of the first hospitals to encourage their patients to engage in art and according to Browne, this had two main benefits: ‘It contributed primarily to impart healthy vigour to the body and secondarily, to expel delusions, and to establish that tranquility which allows and facilitates the operation of rebuke, remonstrance, threats, encouragement and reasoning.’ (Browne, 1841:18) Recognising the calming effects in a patient’s condition through the engagement in drawing became the very first signs of art being used as a therapy. Producing art was ‘constituted as an instrument for the removal of disease’ (Susan Hogan, 2001:44) and to back up Browne’s argument, he calculated that ‘Drawing has been prescribed as a medicine in four cases, and appeared curative in two.’ (Browne, 1847:32) By removing patients from their previously degrading existence in eighteenth century asylums, and importing a sense of safety, security and recovery, this rehabilitation into moral treatment shaped W.A.F Browne into a leading figure in the abolishment of cruelty and physical abuse in asylums, and furthering the introductions of artistic approaches.

William Morris, an artist best known for his textile design and romantic literary works during the mid-nineteenth century acted as a further impetus to the use of arts in hospitals in the 1800s, leading the ‘English Arts and Crafts Movement’ of this time, intending the engagement of craft to serve as a means of personal satisfaction and enriching the quality of life. His influence on the portrayal of work bringing happiness to the worker and the importance of this, and the concern with the relationship between producing arts and crafts, and life itself, held another spark to the ideas surrounding the making of art in hospitals. ‘A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works.’ (William Morris, 1999:129)

Romanticism surfaced adjacently to the Arts and Crafts movement; William Morris was likewise a contributing artist to this period, especially through his expressive prose and poetry. The visual arts became considerably less concerned with the portrayal of reality, and more inspired by abstraction and self-expression, there being a ‘deepened appreciation of nature, the privileging of emotion over reason, a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality.’ (David Edwards, 2004:19)
Theodore Gericault was a perfect example of a romanticist painter; one of his most famous scenes The Raft of the Medusa, produced in 1818, depicts a moment from the after-effects of a ship-wreckage, survivors enduring starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness. Having personally seen this piece of work at the Louvre in Paris a couple of years ago, the colossal scale and gothic tone gained a reaction of particular disturbance, and heightened emotions of shock at the graphic content of this painting. Extensive literary coverage of this tragic event and through researching and interviewing the wreckage survivors, Gericault produced the final outcome. This inventive, imaginary recreation of the event through the mind of the artist summarises Romanticism. In relation to art therapy, this self- expressionist attitude could arguably be the initial foreboding for the therapeutic communication of personal feelings through art made my patients today.

Similar principles underpin Expressionism, which developed between the beginning and middle of the twentieth century; an emphasis again on originality and self- expression. It was described as ‘the representation of emotion in its most immediate and compelling form. To achieve these ends, the subject is frequently exaggerated, distorted, or otherwise altered in order to stress the artist’s emotional relationship with both the subject matter and medium.’ (David Edwards, 2004:20) Expressing meaning and emotional experience to evoke a mood or idea, rather than an actuality is also the representation of Romanticism, so what makes these two art movements different? Aspects of Romanticism were pulled into the twentieth century towards the succeeding movement of Impressionism, so there is a connection in terms of the expression of the inner life and feelings of the artist. The medium and use of the medium is the recognisable alteration, the choice of colours and brush-strokes became a continuation of the mental state of the artist rather than content and composition alone.
A stereotypical Expressionist was Edvard Munch, his works recently exhibited at Tate Modern. ‘The Scream’ was by far Munch’s most well-known scene, which was recreated in a series of four separate versions using oil, pastel, tempera and translated into a lithograph. Mirrored emotion becomes apparent between Munch and the agonised figure portrayed; emphasised also by the repetition of four adaptations. Munch describes his inspiration: ‘One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.’ (The Art Institute of Chicago, 2011) Reflections of emotional pain and instability remained key in the majority of his works. A developing awareness in the art of the insane became tolerable in society only through the courageous leap of artists such as Gericault and Munch to become expressive and emotionally involved in what they paint, and ignoring the stigma attached to madness and an unstable mental state. Romanticism and Expressionism were of particular importance in ‘re-evaluating the aesthetic and creative significance of the art of the mentally ill… and initiated an interest in art forms existing outside familiar or accepted cultural norms.’ (David Edwards, 2004:20)

A patient called Adam Christie was admitted to the Royal Montrose Mental Hospital in Scotland in 1901, where he was one of the first to be provided with his own studio in hospital grounds. Using glass from bottles to scrape stone in sculptures, carving wood with nails, and producing paintings using matchsticks, this primitive and spontaneous approach to art making was soon known to be ‘Art Brut’, otherwise known as ‘Raw Art’. This is ‘evidence of a power of originality that all people possess but which in most has been stifled by educational training and social constraints.’ (Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith, 1998:35) Spending the remaining years of his life at Montrose, he created over two hundred sculptures using found objects, and gaining his reputation as an ‘Outsider’ artist, a term used to describe ‘untrained artists…uncooked by culture and representing art in its rawest and purest state.’ (David Edwards, 2004:22) Singled out from the rest in gaining his own studio, Adam Christie and other Outsider artists alike have played an important role in the development of art therapy, and predominantly through its influence on many early art therapists. Seeking the artistic productions of modest individuals with the quality of secluded creation, and drawing the public’s attention towards this kind of work, encouraged it to flourish and continues to this day.

Surrealism crept into the 1920s, where themes of dreams, fantasy, illusion, and the distortion of reality became the main interpretations. Surrealist artists were primitive and intuitive in their art making, producing work that came from the deepest depths of their unconscious mind. ‘The artistic and literary movement celebrated the unconscious as a liberating force and regarded it as a source of an art devoid of the degenerating effects of rationality’, (David Edwards, 2004:22) in other words, the subconscious was encouraged to overpower all feeling, and separate from the surrounding world, outside all aesthetic or moral fixations. Surrealists ‘favoured automatism in which conscious control is suppressed and the subconscious is allowed to take over…exploring the imaginative and creative powers of the mind.’ (Michael Clarke, 2010:240) Deriving principles of spontaneity and self-expression from Romanticism and Expressionism, the unconscious decisions and free association within surrealism reflects majorly in the foundations of an art therapy session.
‘Free Association’ is a term used to illustrate the process of visual expression of inner emotions and experiences, through spontaneous imagery released from the unconscious. An Art Therapist’s client can draw, paint, etc. anything and everything that comes to mind, however trivial or unrelated to the diagnosed stress or traumatic event of the client, which triggers ‘unconscious chains of associations, to the unconscious determinants of communication...an outer sense is made of the inner, often uncontrolled sensation and experience.’ (Caroline Case and Tessa Dalley, 1992:52) Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to talk about the ‘unconscious’, with beliefs that much of our personalities and ideas stem back from our childhood, and these ideas can be brought to light through the transference of unconscious inner feeling into artistic form; through repressed drives and desires. Dreams were also theorised by Freud as being ‘the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.’ (Sigmund Freud, 1971:608) Reflecting on dreams and finding patterns or recurrent themes within a patient’s dreams can unlock deeper meanings through free associations. ‘The Reckless Sleeper’, a painting produced by Surrealist painter Rene Magritte in 1928 illustrates the irregular and unconnected objects in the mind of a sleeping dreamer, the inanimate articles relate directly to Freud’s theory, purposely expressed by Magritte at the time. Unconscious chains of thought clarify that making art in a therapy session has a different purpose from that of painting primarily for exhibiting in a gallery space and being aesthetically pleasing. Picking up a pencil, paintbrush, etc. and letting the unconscious mind take over underpins certain ideas in art therapy, the ability to decode these unconscious decisions becomes a joint effort between the client and therapist.

These spontaneous emerging thoughts were drawn from the Surrealists and influenced Abstract Expressionism during the mid-twentieth century. The importance of the unconscious was furthermore recognised, stressing the automatism and intuition within the freedom of expression. Comparing Abstract Expressionism to Expressionism in the earlier 1900s, the focus on emotional exposition was present in both; the abstraction in the later variation of the movement differs them, and an emphasis on the creative process took hold. ‘The preference of working on a huge scale, the emphasis placed on surface qualities…the glorification of the act of painting itself’ (Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith, 1998:6) summarises the significance of the creative process rather than the finished product.
Jackson Pollock practiced this type of ‘Action Painting’; explosive energies of dribbling and splashing paint in dynamic gestural movements, with no preconceived idea of what the picture will look like, linking again to Freud’s theory of free association and the unconscious mind. ‘What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.’ (Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith, 1998:10) The awareness of art making as a therapeutic process was reinforced by Abstract Expressionism, and created another stepping stone for the formation of an art therapist’s studio, encouraging freedom of expression in whatever means a client is comfortable with.

Bringing art therapy into the present, contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama represents an individual in the modern age with an unstable mental state living in a safe, therapeutic world. After researching the history of art therapy, it is hard to imagine how different this artist’s life would have been living in the brutal asylums of the 1700s, or in earlier centuries when mental instability was viewed as a disgusting, untreatable disease. The chance to become an artist may not have even arisen, barely surviving in the harsh, repressing environments patients were often subjected to. ‘I am very lonely being an artist, and in my own life. When I go up to the roof top of a high-rise building, I feel an urge to die by jumping from it. My passion for art is what has prevented me from doing that.’ (Jalkut, 2000:137) Producing paintings, installations, sculptures and architectural pieces, Kusama has invited the viewer into the obsessively marked, ‘dots and nets’ world, in an attempt to share her experiences and escape from psychological trauma.

Composing these thoughts, the establishment of art therapy as a recognised practice, draws principles and concepts from all art movements; theories and ideas have been taken from each period, each a stepping stone leading to a final outcome. Goya publicised the immoral treatment of people housed in mental asylums, which initiated the breaking down of stigma in society attached to the mentally disabled. William Tuke and W.A.F Browne both opened their own mental hospitals, introducing a kinder, non-abusive treatment of patients in agreement that the humiliation of patients should be abolished. W.A.F Browne recognised that the use of art in hospitals was a useful means in calming and engaging the brain in creative activity, William Morris furthered this idea. Romanticism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Art Brut, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism; the experimentation of painting and the natural evolvement over time from documentative art in the 1700s to self- expressive, emotional art becomes apparent when time-lining specific influences. Each proceeding has pushed art therapy forward, each a milestone that has been passed, and extended into the present. The study of art therapy still remains active, and who knows, further discoveries may be made in the centuries to come.


Fig 1:- The Madhouse at Saragossa, Francisco Goya, 1794


Fig 2:- The York Retreat founded by William Tuke


Fig 3:- Montrose Asylum in Angus (now Sunnyside Royal Hospital


Fig 4:- The Raft of Medusa, Theodore Gericault, 1818

Fig 5:- The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1895, Pastel on Board

 Fig 6:- Untitled, Adam Christie, date not available, stone sculpture







The History of Art Therapy

Licensed therapist need to understand the rich history of art therapy. It is also important to learn that as a licensed therapist, you already have a base training from traditional therapy teachings.

The History of Art Therapy

During the classical period of art therapy, the 1940’s to the 1970’s, mental health professionals from psychiatrists, analysts, social workers, psychologists, and counselors contributed to writing about the value of art therapy.

The early days of art therapy saw researchers seeking knowledge from psychology and the behavior sciences (Kaplan, 2000). Each of these early pioneers of art therapy was trained in other mental health professional fields.

There were four pioneers who wrote about the field of art therapy in the classical period. Margaret Naumburg is called “The Mother of art Therapy” and is the primary writer of art therapy.

She was heavily influenced by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and took many of her ideas from psychoanalytic practices.

Naumburg believed that art drawings were a “symbolic communication of unconscious material and said it would diminish transference in the therapeutic setting (Detre et al., 1983).

Edith Kramer took the approach that “art can be therapy”. She took a great interest in the  actual art making process and paid close attention to the sublimation of the defense mechanism, part of Freud’s personality theory (Kramer, 1993).  She worked in the educational setting and applied art therapy in therapeutic schools.

The third major contributor of art therapy is Elinor Ulman.  Ulman founded “The Bulletin of Art Therapy” and published the first book of essays on art therapy, “Art Therapy: Problems of Definitions”.  Another pioneer, Kwiatkowska, contributed in the area of family art therapy and art therapy research.

In the 1970’s two major publications of art therapy came about. The first is “Art Psychotherapy” in 1972 and “Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association in 1982.

Art Therapy is a combination of many therapeutic approaches. These include Psychodynamic (Freud & Jung), Humanistic (Gestalt, Existentialism, Person-Centered, Adlerian, & Phenomenological), Cognitive / Behavioral Therapy, Developmental Therapy, Behavioral Psychology, and Marriage and Family Therapy as well as many others.

One can see that the average mental health professional has training in many of the therapeutic approaches above. So, what makes an art therapist different from a regular mental health professional?

In my opinion, all licensed therapists have the capacity to use art therapy with their clients. Of course, training for the licensed professional is necessary with continuing education courses in art therapy.


Continue to seek training as a art / counseling therapist:

House-Tree-Person Art Therapy Technique 

Catastrophe Scale in Art Therapy Activity 

What do the colors mean in Art Therapy & Color Psychology? 

Shelter House Art Therapy Technique 

Art Therapy Group Counseling Activity Worksheet 

Art Therapy Family Portrait Drawing 

Art Therapy Self-Portrait 

Art Therapy Assessment Drawing Technique 

Art Therapy Interpreting Drawings 

Get More Ideas Here: Creative Counseling 101 Home 

Anger Management & Art Therapy Crinkled Paper Technique 

Art Therapy Counseling Pictionary 

Art Therapy Christmas Tree Drawing & World 

The Three Animals Art Therapy Technique

The Kinetic Family Drawing Art Therapy Technique/a> 

The Kinetic School Drawing Art Therapy Technique/a> 

String of Lights Art Therapy & Genogram Drawing Technique 

Art Therapy / Meet in the Middle Activity 

Art Therapy / Anger Mangement Angry Snowball Technique

See More Ideas Here:

House / Tree / Sun / Water / Art Therapy Animal Drawing Technique

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