Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Art therapy: a historical perspective

Mirjana Stojkovic-Ivkovic
Belgrade, Serbia

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Portrait de
Suzanne Valadon 
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses the creation of art to help resolve psychopathological conflicts. It helps people to identify psychological weaknesses and see problems from a different perspective, enabling them to escape from repetitive self-destructive behavior. Art therapy improves personality, self-image, and self-acceptance, resulting in an improved quality of life.

Art therapy in the treatment of addiction facilitates expression, communication, and treatment. Through art patients are able to express feelings that they may not be able to readily express verbally. The artwork often surprises the artists themselves because it brings to the surface feelings they were not even aware of. Conversation can hide true thoughts and feelings because we have been taught to say only what is allowed and expected from ourselves and others. The deeply repressed desires, anger, dreams, and feelings that define us stay hidden. When we become aware of these repressed aspects of ourselves, there is a greater possibility of change.Because art therapy is based on nonverbal communication, it helps identify the repressed content in an unconscious relationship with the body and the emotional and physical blockades that arise during the course of a lifetime.

Art therapy has been used successfully with children, with people who have difficulties in verbal communication, or who use speech as a defense mechanism. Art expression in those with mental illness has a characteristic language that is common in several psychiatric disorders. And because art is as old as civilization itself, it can also portray and predict movement within a society in addition to its way of expressing individuality and creative ideas.3

At the Circus, Fernando the Rider

Art therapy was first used by the French psychiatrist P. Pinel in the eighteenth century and was the subject of publications in 1907 by Marcel Raja (“L’Art Chez Les Fous” or “The Art of Psychotics”); in 1922 by Hans Prinzhorn (“The Art of Insanity: An Analysis of Ten Schizophrenic Artists); in 1945 by Adrian Hill, a British artist (“Art Versus Illness: A Story of Art Therapy”); and by Margaret Naumburg (“Psychoneurotic art: Its Function in Psychotherapy”). Since then methods have been developed to integrate art into both individual and group therapy.

One famous artist provides an early example of art as a means of therapy in the treatment of alcoholism. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) was a descendant of old French royalty. Born with a hereditary bone disease, his growth was stunted as a teen from chronic injuries to both legs and he thereafter walked with a limp. Toulouse-Lautrec felt he did not fit in a world that emphasized physical beauty and shunned diversity. He was deeply unhappy because of his condition and societal rejection, and became an alcoholic.

He lived in brothels, consumed a great deal of alcohol, was malnourished, and acquired syphilis. When he became delirious he was committed to an asylum for the “wealthy” with mental illness. There, as he was forced to abstain from alcohol, he once again began to paint. Soon his hospital days were filled with art, and the more he painted, the more his mental health improved. During this time, his famous “Circus” collection was created. The paintings were so good that his doctors released him and claimed he was cured. The artist himself remarked: “I bought my freedom with my paintings.”

Painting in a hospital setting improved Toulouse-Lautrec’s mental health. He remained sober for the next two years, and painted many famous works of art. For patients today, creating art is a way to realize unconscious content while remaining in contact with the ego, also known as controlled regression. An examination of art history confirms the utility of art therapy even before it was officially recognized as a form of psychotherapy.




  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec 18.10.2016.
  2. https://www.telozivotnikompas.org/art-terapija 26.08.2016.
  3. Art therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 23(1)7-13.

MIRJANA STOJKOVIC-IVKOVIC obtained her degree at the University of Medicine in Nis, Serbia and specialized in psychiatry at the Military Medical Academy in Belgrade. She is certified in psychoanalytical psychodynamic adult therapy and works in Belgrade.

Summer 2018



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