The Flight out of Egypt
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kvercillo's picture


When every inch of a canvas is completely covered, there is usually reason. Sometimes, the reason is because the artist has schizophrenia.

That was precisely the diagnosis for artist Richard Dadd. He had his first serious break with reality during his travels, particularly in and around Egypt. It’s little wonder then that this painting of that experience is characterized by the chaos of a completely filled canvas.

This is an example of “horror vacui," which literally translates to “fear of empty space." The artist doesn’t just fill the space but fills it with immense detail, something Dadd was well-known for. Moreover, there seems to be no particular focus for the work. In fact, although we know from history that this picture depicts his Egyptian travels, he didn’t even focus enough on the fact to give the work a name. Although its well known as The Flight out of Egypt, the piece was actually untitled.

Another hallmark of schizophrenic art is the repetition of themes. Indeed, although the amount of time that Dadd actually spent in Egypt was brief, the experience of his delusions there became a nearly obsessive focus of his mind and art for the rest of his life. He had already been losing his grip on reality, and this seems to have come to fruition in Egypt. The timing and the intensity of the experience there never left him.

In fact, he was committed to an asylum after murdering his father, which he did because he believed that he was commanded to do so by the Egyptian god Osiris. He may have believed his real father was Horus, son of Osiris. In the painting, you can see a central figure taking a drink. The drinking vase may represent the sun, which in turn represents Horus. There are many, many layers to the symbols in this crowded painting.

Although he spent most of his life in that insane asylum, Dadd contributed greatly to the art world. His work has inspired countless others. For example, there’s a novel by Elizabeth Cooke called “The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror,” which is about two people who are both fascinated by Dadd’s artwork. There’s even a chapter in the book titled “Flight Out of Egypt.”



  1. Arnheim, Rudolf. “The Art of Psychotics.” Art Psychtherapy, Vol 4. Pp 113-120. Pergamon Press. 1977. Accessed November 6, 2018 at
  2. Cooke, Elizabeth. “The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror: A Novel.” Open Road Media. 2005.
  3. Sarnoff, Charles. “Symbols in Structure and Function: Volume 3.” Xlibiris. 2003. Accessed November 6, 2018
  4. Seabrook, David. “All the Devils are Here.” Granta. 2003. Accessed November 6, 2016 at
  5. Tate Britain. “Richard Dadd: The Flight out of Egypt.” Accessed November 6, 2018 at
  6. Trainor, Terry. Bedlam: St. Mary of Bethlehem. 2010. Accessed November 6, 2018 at
rzarlif's picture


Dadd bumped into an encampment of pilgrims on their Hajj while travelling in around Damascus, now the capital of Syria but then a city in the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The Hajjis were on their way to Mecca and having a rest.  It is a lovely and peaceful scene. The men have long beards and the women lovely smooth skin. A goat at the bottom of the painting is just about to ram a little boy for the second time, but they are just playing. The Roman soldiers at the center of the canvas are kinda weird, like they walked onto the wrong movie set, but the bright orange cloaks liven up the piece.

The title of the painting is odd, for a flightless scene of pilgrims, but Dadd did not actually give the work a title. Someone less worldly must have.