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An Imprisoned Schizophrenic, Richard Dadd Produced Stunning Works Of Art

19h-century British artist Richard Dadd was on his way to a sensational career when he snapped, murdering his father and fleeing the country. Dadd was captured in France and sent to a mental institution, where he spent the next four decades painting from behind bars. Just like Byran Lewis Sanderson's self-portraits on 30 different drugs, Dadd's art raises questions regarding the connection between an artist's mental state and their work.

When it comes to Victorian painters, Dadd stands out for his dreamlike intensity, his fairies and gardens, and his interest in drawing weapons. In fact, Dadd became a suspect in his father's murder when police uncovered portraits of his friends with their throats slashed. Whether or not Dadd's mental illness led to his creative genius, he is remembered as one of the most important Victorian painters, as well as an artist with a very unique and troubled personal life.

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  • The Artist's Most Famous Work Was Painted Behind Bars
    Photo: Richard Dadd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Artist's Most Famous Work Was Painted Behind Bars

    Victorian artist Richard Dadd worked on his most detailed piece, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, for nine years. And the entire time he painted, Dadd was behind bars. In fact, he was unable to finish the picture because he was transferred from Britain's infamous Bedlam prison to Broadmoor in 1864.

    Dadd's fantastic image, seen through a screen of grasses, shows fairies including Oberon and Titania, Queen Mab, and a woodsman chopping a chestnut. The artist added visual references to the pope as well as his father in the painting, perhaps an allusion to the reason Dadd was in prison—he stabbed his own father to death, and because of his mental illness, was convinced the pope was after him.

  • Dadd Stabbed His Father And Fled The Country
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-4.0

    Dadd Stabbed His Father And Fled The Country

    After establishing himself as an important Orientalist painter, Richard Dadd's mental illness slowly took over his life. Dadd began to suffer delusions, including the fantastical idea that Egyptian gods were speaking with him and telling him to commit murder.

    On a summer evening in 1843, Dadd took a stroll with his father through a picturesque park in Kent. As the father and son stood in a circle of elm trees, the painter suddenly punched his father and slashed his neck with a razor. Dadd then pulled a knife and stabbed his father in the chest. After the stabbing, Richard, who was only 26 years old, fled to France.

  • Declared A "Criminal Lunatic," Dadd Spent Years Painting In Jail
    Photo: Richard Dadd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Declared A "Criminal Lunatic," Dadd Spent Years Painting In Jail

    After murdering his father, Richard Dadd fled to France and boarded a train heading south from Paris. But his violent streak didn't end: Dadd attacked one of the passengers with a razor before he was taken into custody.

    The artist was extradited to England, where he was declared a "criminal lunatic" without standing trial. Dadd was sent to the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, also known as Bedlam. From 1844 until his death in 1886, Dadd lived behind bars. And he made many of his best works, including his eerie portrait of the physician Alexander Morison, from prison.

  • After Smoking For Five Days, Dadd Heard Messages From The Waterpipe
    Photo: Richard Dadd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After Smoking For Five Days, Dadd Heard Messages From The Waterpipe

    On a trip to Egypt, where he hoped to gain artistic inspiration, young Richard Dadd began to believe he was receiving messages from the Egyptian sun god Osiris. The feeling first struck Dadd when he saw a group of Egyptian men smoking a waterpipe. The bubbling sound, Dadd thought, must be a form of communication. After five straight days of smoking, Dadd determined that the message was from Osiris.

    After he killed his father, Dadd claimed that he was “the son and envoy of God, sent to exterminate the men most possessed with the demon."

  • Dadd Painted Stunning Portraits Of His Doctors And Jailers
    Photo: Richard Dadd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Dadd Painted Stunning Portraits Of His Doctors And Jailers

    While in prison, Dadd's doctors encouraged him to paint, so many of his works incorporated depictions of the jail's employees. In one 1853 piece, Portrait of a Young Man, Dadd painted his doctor, Charles Hood. The intense image, both dreamlike and surreal, looks nothing like other Victorian-era paintings, in part because Dadd was completely shut off from the outside world.

    For years, Dadd's only audience was his jailers, who came to trust him enough to allow the artist to use knives and work in his own studio. He even painted murals for Broadmoor's entertainment hall. 

  • The Artist Traveled In Egypt But Then Began Acting Strangely
    Photo: Richard Dadd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Artist Traveled In Egypt But Then Began Acting Strangely

    Before his years in prison, Richard Dadd traveled to the Near East to gather material for his paintings. In 1842, he visited Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, creating paintings based on his experiences. The work earned him a reputation as an important Victorian Orientalist painter. His works included the Caravanserai at Mylasa in Asia Minorwhich Dadd completed in prison.

    However, the travel did more than stir Dadd's artistic abilities. It deeply affected the young man. On his journey home to England, Dadd began acting strangely, and his family began to worry that he was not well.