It is difficult to look at the history of art therapy and its true meaning until one goes back to the history of the visual arts, where art was not art but was considered a trade or workmanship by the general mass or tradesmen. Artistic symbols were used as visual records of self-expression and communication. And even though ancient healing involved art in a multitude of forms and ideas, the history of art therapy was non-existent over the centuries until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet art was not.
The first men to apply art therapy to their psychiatry field were Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon. French psychiatrists, they published studies regarding the artwork of the mentally ill. Looking at similar characteristics and symbolism of the patient’s artwork, these men viewed the developing history of art therapy as one of the best effective diagnostic tools to identify a specific type of mental illness or traumatic event of the time.
Later on, Margaret Naumburg incorporated the field of art into psychotherapy in order for her own patients to visualize and recognize their unconscious state of mind. Using this form of psychological counseling, she founded the Walden School in the year 1915 to apply her findings to her student’s artwork. To this day, she is considered the actual founder of art therapy in the United States, after publishing quite heavily on the subject and teaching art therapy seminars at the New York University in the 1950s. From this moment on, the history of art therapy had a new beginning that would lead to a guarantee of its success.
Deeply rooted in the theories of Freud and Jung, both the conscious and subconscious play a major part in the two part process of art therapy–the creation of art and having its meaning discovered. The history of art therapy has shown that visual images and symbols are easily accessible to the human mind, and is considered to be the most natural form of communication. Each patient, regardless of their problem or age, is encouraged to visualize something in their mind they cannot talk about, yet have strong feelings and emotions about it. The art therapist then reviews it to have the patient interpret it.
As the field of art therapy progresses, it is centered on visual mediums, and is mainly used in the mental health treatment. But it can also be used with traditional medicine to treat organic diseases and conditions. It is documented over the years through the history of art therapy that art therapy allows the patients to develop their own style of coping skills, and promotes healing by relieving their stress.