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
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
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