Art Therapy in the 1900s

The 1900s brought many great advancements in art therapy and its use in treating individuals with various types of mental disorders.  Adrian Hill, a London native, was among coined the term ‘art therapy’.  Hill, a World War I artist who later suffered from tuberculosis, saw the benefits of drawing had on the healing process while hospitalized for his illness.  Eventually he began to lead drawing and painting classes for other patients who, he believed, benefited from the class it took their minds off of their ailments and relieved their mental distress.

Margaret Naumburg 

During the 1920’s and 30’s, a young professional be the name of Margaret Naumburg become one of the greatest and most influential pioneers of art therapy in the United States.  Naumburg was greatly influenced by the Freud’s work, particularly his idea that the unconscious held more importance than the conscious (Detre, 1983).  She used this idea to argue that children should be educated in a way that allowed them to explore and express their unconscious through creative activities like art.  Around 1914, Naumburg started the Walden School where she justified the importance of art by making it a major part of the school’s curriculum (Detre, 1983).

Art Therapy in Mental Hospitals 

The first documented cases of art therapy in mental hospitals were in the 1940s at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital located in Washington, D.C.  Art therapy became a viable treatment option at the hospital after William Alanson White noticed that patients in the hospital who had organic brain damage or were aphasic often created broken up and incomplete images in their drawings and paintings (Kramer, 1982).  One of the most notable pioneers of the art therapy movement at St. Elizabeth’s was Prentiss Taylor.  Taylor believed that each patient should be viewed as an individual and should be allowed the opportunity to artistically express themselves as such (Kramer, 1982).


When World War II began more and more soldiers were coming home with noticeably different behaviors and personalities.  These behaviors were first described as shell shock and later became known as identifiers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Art Therapy became an important tool in treating these soldiers because, for whatever reason, the soldiers seemed to cope better with their trauma once they could create images that expressed their inner feelings.  In many ways, their art was a way to release the pent up emotions and memories that haunted them from combat.


As the benefits of art therapy on soldiers became more prominent, many began to wonder how art therapy may be used to benefit the general population and those who suffer from disorders other than PTSD. Soon, the importance of doing research in regards to art therapy became clear.  In 1961 the American Journal of Art Therapy, formerly known as the Bulletin of Art Therapy, was founded by Elinor Ulman.

A few years later, in 1969 the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) was founded.  The main goal of the association was to provide proper academic and alternative education to art therapists.  In order to achieve this goal the AATA focused on educational development and the quality of education being offered by developing criteria for the accreditation of Masters level education programs.

Gestalt Psychology and Art Therapy

In the mid- 20th century, gestalt therapists began expressing interest in the use of art as a form of healing.  Some of these therapists began using art therapy after the benefits of art in psychoanalysis became apparent (Rhyne, 1973).  Gestalt therapists are huge believers in the necessity of living in the present and of remaining true to oneself even as the world tries to change who we are (Rhyne, 1973).  One way we can express ourselves truly is through art.  According to gestalt psychologists, art is a great tool for discovering fears and associations as well as a way to fulfill the natural human desire to make objects.  Art allows people to live actively through an event in a way that makes the experience unique to a particular person (Rhyne, 1973).



Agell, G. (1980). History of Art Therapy. Art Education, 33(4), 8-9.

Detre, K. (1983). Roots of Art Therapy: Margaret Naumburg (1890-1983) and Florence Cane (1882-1952)- a family portrait.  American Journal of Art Therapy, 22(4) 111-123.

Kramer, E.  (1982).  The History of Art Therapy in a Large Mental Hospital.  American Journal of Art Therapy, 21(3), 75-84.  

Potash, J. (2005).  Rekindling the Multicultural History of the American Art Therapy Association.  Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 22(4), 184-188.

Rhyne, J. (1973).  The Gestalt Approach to Experience, Art, and Art Therapy. American Journal of Art Therapy, 12(4), 237-248.

By: Shayna Moreland

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