A Very Brief History of the Art Therapy Field

A timeline showing a (very simplified) early history of the formation of the art therapy field in the UK and US.

Having decided on my Final Major Project, I continued exploring the narrative behind my model by researching the history of art therapy.

It was interesting to learn that art therapy began forming as a field at a very similar time in both the UK and the US. Though many different influential figures were involved in both countries, they began experimenting and establishing similar ideas on the power of creativity that is inherent to art, and how it can be developed from Freudian approaches.

The timeline above illustrates a very brief outline of this process, citing some significant characters along the way. In the UK, it was Adrian Hill and Edward Adamson who helped to establish the usage of art and creativity as a therapeutic modality. They both worked frequently with patients in hospitals and sanatoriums, though had differing influences on the field – Hill developed art as therapy, while Adamson focused more on relating it through a psychoanalytical basis. They were both highly instrumental in the setting up of the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964.

Simultaneously, Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer were working on setting up art therapy through their work in the United States. Both working on a Freudian basis, they veered into different pathways as Naumberg’s practise focused heavily on the unconscious, while Kramer worked predominantly with children and emphasised art itself as therapy. Over time, their ideas inspired the establishment of the American Art Therapy Association in 1969.

Art therapy as a profession, however, is not unique to the UK and US – it has been globalised to numerous continents and countries which have all taken up their own research to expand and develop the field. For instance, in Poland art therapies developed due to the work and research done by the music therapists of Wroclaw university in the mid-1980s. Nowadays, there are several postgraduate programmes that focus on creativity and the fine arts as a therapeutic modality.

Throughout its history, Edith Kramer was a key figure to the art therapy practice. She shared what she learned in Vienna to the United States and continued developing her work further there. This emphasises how art therapy functions today – with the advent of the internet and ever easier global communication, art therapy is a growing field that is increasingly considered with more weight and power to help the wellbeing of others.


Final Major Project – Who was Edith Kramer?

Edith Kramer

I am nearing the end of my final year at University, which means it is now time for my Final Major Project! Despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic, I have been excited to start researching and making the last model for my degree.

I have chosen to make a wax bust of the late artist and pioneer of the Art Therapy movement, Edith Kramer. I was first introduced to Kramer during my dissertation research, and really admire her approach to creativity and people.

Edith Kramer was born in 1916 in Vienna and became involved with art early on in her life. Her childhood learning happened in one of Vienna’s progressive and liberal school, with her first art teacher being Trudl Hammerschlag. Later, she studied under the inspiration of the artist Friedl Dickers, who has been stated as a notable influence on Kramer’s later work.

Frederika “Friedl” Dicker-Brandeis (30 July 1898 Vienna – 9 October 1944 Auschwitz-Birkenau)

In the 1930s, Kramer came to America as a political refugee, where she got involved with teaching, and later worked as a mechanic during the second world war. It was in the latter that we saw her interest in social realism art, in particular her interest in people.

The first time Kramer officially worked as an art therapist, was at the Wiltwyck School for Boys in 1950. She continued to run therapeutically oriented art programmes at Leak and Watts Children’s Home from 1960 – 1963, and later worked with the Guild School of the Jewish Guild for the Blind from 1964 – 1974. She was officially given the title of art therapist some time into her career and dedicated a large percentage of her working life to research and setting up training programmes at various universities around the US.

She worked predominantly with a psychoanalytical approach, influenced by Freudian theories of sublimation and the unconscious. However, she was not simply a Freudian copycat and merged both psychoanalysis and art together. This was influenced through her early education by Hammerschlag who introduced her to the ‘free and unconventional expression of unconscious feelings’ in art and later, by Dickers’ teachings which showed her practical ways in which art can be used by children and adolescents to process traumatic experiences. These educational experiences build Kramer’s knowledge about both art and psychoanalysis, from which the term ‘art therapist’ was coined for her.

There were multiple ideas and theories that Kramer contributed to the field of art therapy that are still used by practitioners today to make a real difference in people’s lives, just as she did. Particularly, the art therapists’ ‘Third Hand’ – a way of supporting a child’s creative process so that they may use it to accept their inner conflict and feelings. She saw a great power in the creative process that artists cultivate in helping others to make sense of their own experiences.

Kramer, E. (1977). Art therapy in a children’s community.
Kramer, R. (1978). Art as therapy with children.
Kramer, E. (2001). Art as therapy: collected papers.

Her unconventional approaches have made a lasting impact on the field of art therapy, and subsequently, on so many people in the past and future. Personally, I have been really encouraged by her ideas – I have been studying a creative degree for nearly three years and have experienced an inkling of the power of that process that she writes about so eloquently. It seems quite fitting then, that I end my undergraduate university studies by commemorating Kramer’s significance, and relating it to my own experience of creativity.