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No. 911:
Richard Dadd

Today, an English artist's madness raises questions about creativity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Richard Dadd was mad, insane. That word is out of fashion these days, but Dadd was mad, even by today's forgiving standards.

Dadd was born in 1817. At the age of 26, already an established painter, he took a long trip through Europe and the Mid-East. He came back unbalanced. His family took him to a doctor who dealt in mental illness and its legal implications. Dadd, he said, was dangerous and no longer responsible for his actions.

Just a few days later, as if on cue, Dadd murdered his father. He fled to Paris and there he attacked a perfect stranger. He was caught and shipped back to England. He spent the rest of his life in asylums. He finally died in one when he was 69.

Before the murder, Dadd had submitted two paintings in a competition for historical frescoes in the Houses of Parliament. They were hanging in Westminster Hall when he did the murder.

One survives. It's a dreamy Arabesque painting with camels and bearded Bedouins. The title is Caravan Halted by the Sea Shore. It anticipated the Pre-Raphaelites, soon to come.

Floods of visitors came to see his work after the murder. Journalists tried to diagnose his madness from the pictures. For the next 43 years Dadd painted, and diagnoses continued. Of course some of his work did deal frankly with insanity. He made studies of madness. He called them Sketches to Illustrate the Passions.

Nineteenth-century asylums were meant to keep patients out of the sight of proper Victorian sensibilities. But, one way or another, Dadd's paintings leaked out into exhibitions.

The Victorians were thrilled by what they saw. But then they also thrilled to the supposed madness of the Romantic poet and artist William Blake. One writer said of Dadd and Blake:

[They] may be classed together as examples of painters in whom a disordered brain rather aided than impeded the workings of a fertile and original fancy.

Well, Blake had never heard demon voices commanding him to kill, as Dadd had. But his fertile mind, like Dadd's, had broken new ground. In that, maybe creativity is kin to insanity.

Dadd's most compelling work is a loving picture of Sir Alexander Morison, the doctor at Bethlem Hospital who nursed him back into painting after his rampage. Dadd shows us an angular older man with a face that's gaunt, but open and compelling.

There's really no more madness in Dadd's art than there is in your creative work. In 1974, the Tate Gallery mounted an important exhibit of his art -- not because he was mad, but because the work was good. If Dadd was crazy in life, that was one thing. But in art, his focus was clear, and his passions were set -- on the clean task of helping us to see the world around us.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

MacGregor, J.M., The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, Chapter Eight, Victorian Bedlam: the Case of Richard Dadd.

Allderidge, P., The Late Richard Dadd, 1817-1886. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1974.

I am most grateful to Steve Hamilton for suggesting Dadd as a subject and for providing me with the excellent MacGregor source. He also pointed out two matters I would like to have mentioned in the text of the episode if I'd had the time. One is that Dadd escaped the death sentence only because England had just instituted an insanity defense shortly before he committed murder. The other is that he was given liberty to paint because of recent English reforms in the care of the insane. Either earlier or later in the 19th century he would not have fared so well.

Here you may view many of Dadd's paintings.