Artworks
The Halt in the Desert

Contributor

This peaceful scene in the desert looks so calm and inviting thanks to the soft moonlight and firelight that give it a glow.

However, a closer look reveals the dynamic tension underlying this work of art.

Artist Richard Dadd created this piece in 1845. Although he did have works that came before it, this really marked the beginning of his painting career. He had been incarcerated in a mental asylum just two years earlier. As a paranoid schizophrenic, he was the victim of his own delusions. His biggest mental break, prior to when he killed his dad, was when he traveled with Sir Thomas Phillips on a commission to draw what he saw. Unfortunately, what he saw was more in his own mind than in the surrounding nature. This painting comes from his distorted memory of what was already a distorted image in his head at the time that it occurred.

In fact, we know from some of Dadd’s own writings that the time during which they camped along the Dead Sea, which is what the painting depicts, was a fraught time for the artist. After visiting Syria, he had written a letter to a friend in which he said his imagination was “so full of vagaries” that he doubted his own sanity. Then the travels proceeded to the Holy Land and the Nile River, after which he wrote that he had nearly a week of nervous depression that he himself couldn’t understand. His mental breakdown in and around Egypt would go on to inform his thoughts, and his art, for the rest of his life.

This doesn’t make the work any less valuable. In fact, the history of Dadd’s mental illness has long been one of the things that make people feel inspired by his work. He’s drawn to depicting the smallest of details, no matter how long it takes. His work naturally also has an otherworldly quality to it. Some have argued that he falls into a class of artists whose history of mental health issues aid, rather than impede, their artistic abilities. In fact, one theory is that the reason the painting looks so calm is because the artist longed for a more peaceful brain experience and conjured it up in the image.

Although this piece was created in 1845, the world didn’t know about it for a long time. It was revealed in the mid-1980s when a collector brought it to the television show Antiques Roadshow to see if it was worth anything. Indeed, it was valued at £100,000.

Sources

Sources

  1. Art Treasures Exhibition. A Handbook to the Water Colours, drawings, and Engravings in the Art. Bradbury & Evans. London. 1857. Accessed November 6, 2018 at https://books.google.com/books?id=j6xbAAAAcAAJ
  2. Prodger, Michael. “The Dangerous Mind of Richard Dadd.” New Statesman America. July 2, 2015. Accessed November 6, 2018 at https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/07/dangerous-mind-richard-dadd
  3. Russell. G and Huddleston, Samuel. “Richard Dadd: The Patient, the Artist, and the “Face of Madness”.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. Jul-Sep 2015, Vol. 24 Issue 3, p. 213-228.
  4. The Independent. “A National Treasure: 30 Years of Antique Roadshow.” August 31, 2007. Accessed November 6, 2018 at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/a-national-treasure-30-years-of...
  5. Trainor, Terry. Bedlam: St. Mary of Bethlehem. 2010. Accessed November 6, 2018 at https://books.google.com/books?id=-e3AAwAAQBAJ