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The Late Richard Dadd. Alas! . . . for, although the grave has not actually closed over him, he must be classed among the dead. It is indeed a heavy penalty—that which poor humanity pays for enjoying the gifts of a fertile imagination.—Art Union, 18431(p9)
Come Unto These Yellow Sands was the last painting Richard Dadd (1817-1886) completed before leaving on the fateful Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East that culminated in his mental illness, which led to patricide.2 Because of his exceptional talent and recognition for his imaginative paintings (cover), Dadd was chosen to accompany Sir Thomas Philips on a 10-month Grand Tour to record their travels. Soon after their departure, it was evident that Dadd found it difficult to keep up with Philips' rapid schedule. He was overwhelmed by the pace and the long rides on horseback in the Middle East as they traveled from place to place. Dadd had little time to draw and could not do so on horseback. Moreover, he was overstimulated by the exotic locations, sights, and sounds, finding it difficult to decide what to draw. Some believe that his difficulty choosing subjects and focusing his attention may have been a prodrome to his subsequent psychosis.
Before leaving on the Grand Tour, Dadd was self sufficient and described by friends as a leader, noble, and gentle—one of nature's aristocrats.3(p19) His imaginative paintings, especially of the literary classics, were increasingly praised.3 Best known to the general public were his paintings based on fairies from Shakespeare's plays, subjects that were a particular challenge for an artist. In these he illustrated the confrontation between humans and fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream (Titania Sleeping, Puck, Fairies Assembling at Sunset to Hold Their Revels) and Ariel's role in The Tempest (Come Unto These Yellow Sands).
The title Come Unto These Yellow Sands was taken from first line of Ariel's song from The Tempest (act 1, scene 2, line 452) that lured Ferdinand to safety on the shore of Prospero's island from the wrecked ship. There on the yellow sands, the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda first meet. The song begins:“Come unto these yellow sands/And then take hands. . . . ” Later Dadd used a more specific title, Fairies Holding Their Revels on the Sea Shore at Night, but kept the accompanying quote. Yet the fairy dance he depicts is more consistent with Titania's invitation to Oberon in a Midsummer's Night Dream. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, makes a peace offering to her husband, Oberon, when he seeks to take away her loyal companion for himself:“If you will dance our round/And see our moonlight revels, go with us” (act 2, scene 1, lines 140-141). Titania speaks about how she and her companion sat on Neptune's yellow sands. The Queen of the Fairies is shown standing at the apex of the painting with her attendants. The dancing fairies below them move in half circles on the sands to create a double loop of figures that is elegant to some yet appears grotesque to others. The fairies dance with abandon in an apparent self-absorbed frenzy.1(p64) The unusual combination of pinks, blues, and orange-reds creates an unsettling feeling and a sense of mystery around the microcosmic circle of the fairy dance.
Overall, art reviewers felt Dadd had captured Shakespeare's intent, his essence, better than any previous artist had done, noting the painting was simultaneously sublime, natural, sensual, sexual, and fantastic. One compared Dadd with Thalia, the muse of idyllic poetry. Another viewed the fairy painting as the product of an“over-fevered imagination.”1(p64) A reviewer cautioned Dadd to beware and stop short of the boundaries that divide the imaginary from the absurd. Finally, one critic commented that the plan for Dadd to join Philips on the Grand Tour to make realistic drawings and record real buildings and people on the Grand Tour might further advance his career,“after all those fairies.”
Dadd and Philips departed in July 1842. After visiting the Middle East, they went to Egypt in December, a country Dadd found particularly fascinating. There he immersed himself in Egyptian mythology, coming to believe that he was actually participating in ancient Egyptian practices. After leaving Egypt, they moved on to visit Italy en route of home. Philips was concerned about Dadd's increasingly disorganized thinking that eventuated in Dadd parting from his host and rushing home to England. His bizarre thoughts and behavior led to a psychiatric examination with a recommendation for psychiatric hospitalization.1 Unfortunately, his father ignored this advice and denied the seriousness of his son's illness, attributing it to sunstroke. In August 1843, delusional, believing the Egyptian god Osiris was directing him to remove the devil's influence in the world, Dadd murdered his father, mistaking him for the devil in disguise. He used a knife to kill him after failing to cut his throat.2 He escaped to France, where he was apprehended after attempting to cut the throat of a fellow passenger in a carriage. Dadd was hospitalized with a diagnosis of homicidal monomania. He was extradited to England, found criminally insane, and committed to Bethlem Hospital, long known as Bedlam. Institutionalized there and later at Broadmoor, the new hospital for the criminally insane, he spent the last 4 decades of his life in confinement. One can map changing attitudes and treatments toward mental patients and beliefs about art and mental illness by reviewing the course of his decades-long treatment.3
Dadd was confined to the ward for the criminally insane at Bethlem for the first years of his incarceration with little stimulation, although he was allowed to paint. His physician rarely visited the hospital and, when he did so, rarely wrote case notes. The treatment environment changed dramatically with the arrival of Dr William Charles Hood, its first resident physician superintendent, in 1852. Hood was a strong proponent of moral treatment and removed the last remnants of physical restraints, widened the windows to allow sunlight into the asylum, placed flowers all around to establish a warm environment, and recorded case notes regularly. Despite Hood's supportive treatment and encouragement for his creative expression, Dadd remained delusional throughout his lifetime; however, he became less violent over the years of his confinement. He never acknowledged personal responsibility for his crime of patricide, maintaining soon after his admission that:“On my return from travel, I was roused to the consideration of subjects which I had previously never dreamed of. . . . I could not question their propriety . . . coupled with the idea of a descent from the god Osiris . . . induced me to put a period to the existence of him whom I had always regarded as a parent, but whom the secret admonishings I had, counselled me was the author of the ruin of my race.”1(p22),3(p76) In 1862, nearly 2 decades after the murder, Dadd completed a painting, Bacchanalian Scene (Figure 1), that shows a satyr drinking wine next to an unsettling face. He included with it a Latin verse that appears in the painting around the goblet that amplifies the early interview:“Each man then has his own unlucky fate both here and beyond—like must be added to like and one's due paid to the appointed spirit,”1(p122) apparently referring here to Osiris. Thus, the belief that he was subject to the will of Osiris remained central to his thought throughout his lifetime. He repeated these beliefs 30 years later at the time of his transfer to Broadmoor. As to the murder, he reported:“Now the author of this act [the murder] is unknown to me, although, as being the cat's paw, I am held responsible.”1(p122,123)
The shocking news of Dadd's crime, his commitment for psychosis, and his persistent delusional beliefs isolated him from his friends. Although his friends were aware that Dadd continued to paint, his work was not publicly exhibited; thus, to the art world he was essentially deemed dead (epigraph). Still, rather than simply allow Dadd to paint, Hood actively encouraged his art, as did the superintendant at Broadmoor when Dadd was transferred. At Bethlem, Dadd completed an extensive series of more than 30 paintings to illustrate the passions. Among these were raving madness, hatred, murder (the biblical Cain slaying Abel), self-contempt, envy, grief, and sorrow. His sketch to illustrate the Grief or Sorrow (Figure 2) depicts an emotionally charged atmosphere; its dramatic theme and lighting elicit an impersonal sense of melancholy. A sorrowful blind woman is shown before a stone monument. The movement of her garments draws the eye upward over the stone monument to a hovering ghostly skull in a shroud; all these elements contribute to the sense of desolation. Dadd personalizes despair in Crazy Jane (Figure 3), the subject of a popular ballad about a rejected woman who loses her lover and is insane. Using a male model for Jane, Dadd captures her dissociation from reality.
During Dadd's stay at Bethlem Hospital, he returned to fairy paintings with the encouragement of his physicians. Although he completed more than 200 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, portraits, and landscapes during his long confinement, 2 fairy paintings, Oberon and Titania and The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke,2 are his best-known paintings today. The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke occupied him for 9 years; his father is shown in the upper right. Although Dadd did not acknowledge it, it is proposed that working on this painting was important emotionally in dealing with his feelings about his father's death.5
Although Dadd's delusions persisted, completing the art of the passions' series and his 2 final fairy paintings may have facilitated emotion regulation. Perhaps his drawings and paintings provided a means and a context for him to discharge his emotions and master them. Early in his hospitalization, Dadd was often impulsively aggressive without provocation. His outbursts lessened, and he was less violent as he grew older. Untutored mental patients who draw are referred to as outsider artists. Dadd did not fit this category. Dadd was skilled; he planned and sketched his paintings in advance and carefully colored them. His portraits and landscapes are realistic. His perceptions were not obscured by his delusions. Although his fairy paintings may seem odd and overly detailed, these paintings have understandable themes as he described them. Still, his creative expression did not change his denial of his crime and his imaginative expression did not eliminate his delusions. We can only speculate whether avoiding the Grand Tour might prevented the onset of his psychosis. Might he have been able to sublimate his fantasies in fairy paintings if he had avoided the Grand Tour? His family history must be considered. Two siblings developed psychotic illnesses. His brother George was at Bethlem at the same time as Richard. His sister became psychotic after marriage and was committed to an asylum.
Reviewing the more than 200 works Dadd completed suggests that it is best to think of him as an artist who was also mentally ill and to be cautious about referring to a separate category of psychiatric art.
Harris JC. Come Unto These Yellow Sands. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(3):218–219. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2078
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