An Introduction to the History of Art Therapy

Blog post written by guest author, Zhiqian Xu.

Art therapy is a young discipline that uses artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and improve mental well-being. In this blog post we introduce you to the history of art therapy!

Art has always been essential to what it means to be human. It is rooted in our needs to express ourselves and make sense of our experience in the world around us. Though we humans have been using arts, including visual art, to express ourselves, communicate, and to heal, art therapy didn’t become a formal therapeutic method until mid-twentieth century.

In this blog post, you will read a brief introduction to the history of art therapy. You will get to know how artists and psychologists explored the link between art and psyche and how art therapy came into being.

Art is Simply Necessity

Have you ever thought about why art is therapeutic?

The simple answer is that art, in its broadest sense, is “the primordial necessity of man”. We all need it. As human beings, we are born to think, express, and communicate, in one way or another. We have an innate and profound need to create something, to leave a trace, to transform our emotions into different forms—images, sounds, bodily movements, etc.

In other words, we humans need art, in all its forms, to process, reveal, explain, express the emotions. We build a powerful bridge through human creativity between minds and the physical world, and by doing so, we are able to give expression of the self and the world surround us.

The Fruit of Two Worlds: Art and Psychology

The appearance of art therapy has roots in the development in two worlds: art and psychology. Photography, which appeared at the end of the nineteenth century marked a turning point of artistic creation. Art was no longer a tool to reproduce reality, but also symbolic expressions of emotions. Max Ernst (1891-1976), for example, translated the unconscious and the dream into visual art.

Many consider Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung to be art therapy’s primary ancestors. Theories and methods of psychoanalysis were the bedrock from which art therapy grew. Freud considered works of art as projections of the creator’s unconscious. Jung’s ideas greatly influenced art therapy because he believed that the image itself was central and art is the second way to the unconscious after dreams.

The Beginning of Art Therapy

The beginning of art therapy can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when psychologist and artists in English-speaking and European area started to explore the link between artistic creation and psyche.

A German psychiatrist and art historian, Hans Prinzhorn (1866-1933) studied drawings of hospitalized mentally ill patients in a psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg, and tried to give meaning to their drawings as well as drawing connections between their art work and their mental illness.

He collected more than 5000 pieces of artwork of psychiatric patients and published a book on his collection in 1922, titled Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Prinzhorn laid a foundation for the understanding of mental illness through analysis of artistic production.

British artist Adrian Hill was generally considered to have coined the term “art therapy” in 1942 to describe the therapeutic application of visual art production. While recovering from tuberculosis, Hill discovered the therapeutic benefits of drawing and painting. In 1946, another artist Edward Adamson observed and further studied the connection between artistic expression and emotional release.

Becoming Tool of Treatment

The first passage from art as a tool for observation and diagnosis to art as a tool for treatment dates back to the period of WWI. US artist Edith Kramer (1916-2014) analyzed the drawings of children deported to Terezin camp. She was followed by her teacher, Friedl Dicker Brandeis (1898-1944), who through the drawing managed to give voice to the damaged that war had brought to the imagination of those children.

In the USA around the same time, similar development in the understanding of the therapeutic aspect of art could be observed as well. Margaret Naumberg (1890-1983), a psychodynamic psychologist also began to use the word “art therapy” to describe her methods of work. She emphasized artistic production as a form of expression of the unconscious and grasped its undisputed therapeutic value.

Naumberg considered spontaneous artistic expression in therapy as a form of symbolic communication between patient and therapist, giving to images a greater potential to express thoughts and emotions than words.

Art Therapy Around The World

The formal practice of art therapy started in the mid-twentieth century. The British Association of Art Therapists and the American Art Therapy Association were founded in 1964 and 1969 respectively.

More organizations around the world were established following the model of these associations, including the Professional Association for Art Therapy in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

It has been widely studied and observe how art therapy is effective to treat trauma, abuse, grief, anxiety, etc. It is a helpful tool to alleviate stress through major life changes and eases suffering associated with mental, physical and emotional disease. The practice of art therapy has gained ground over time as a solid psychotherapy practice all over the world.

Nevertheless, we still much to do to raise awareness about art therapy and how it can benefit everyone. Sam’s Fans hopes to help by introducing you to the history of art therapy and inviting you to help us bring art therapy to seriously ill children. Thank you!

Sam’s Fans raises awareness about art therapy through this blog and social media. Would you consider donating so we can continue doing this work?


Adelphi Psych Medicine Clinic. The History of Art Therapy.

Galbiati E. (2020). The Significance of Art Therapy. In: Colombo B. (eds) Brain and Art. Springer, Cham.

Junge, M.B. (2015). History of Art Therapy. In The Wiley Handbook of Art Therapy (eds D.E. Gussak and M.L. Rosal).

Van Lith, T. (2016). Art therapy in mental health: A systematic review of approaches and practices. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 47, 9–22. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2015.09.003

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L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

1 Comment

  1. Judy Whalen on December 11, 2021 at 11:16 am

    Samuel, what a great article. I didn’t know. Thank you. 💖💚🌈

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