Awesome Men Throughout History: Richard Dadd

This week’s choice for Awesome Men Throughout History?disturbed artist Richard Dadd?is a controversial choice, because it’s impossible to defend patricide and I’m certainly not going to try. But I am very interested in the idea that art can redeem, and Dadd was an immensely gifted painter whose oil didn’t touch the dipstick, if you catch my drift.

Dadd was a talented artist from an early age, His aptitude for drawing was evident at an early age, and he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts?no small accomplishment, that?when he was 20. He even got a medal for life drawing in 1840, when he was 23, and illustrated The Book of British Ballads two years later.

His downfall came when he was selected to be Sir Thomas Phillips’ draftsman on an expedition that wound through southern Europe en route to Egypt. Their trip included two weeks in Syria, enduring grueling heat that may have given Dadd sunstroke. Whatever the cause, his personality went dark as they traveled up the Nile, and he suspected that he was under the influence of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. This made him rather violent towards Phillips and others (he was entertaining ideas of attacking the Pope during a stop in Rome), and he was returned to his family after his journey concluded to rest and recuperate.

That didn’t happen. Instead, he was convinced that his father was an agent of Satan and stabbed him to death, then fled to France, where he was apprehended while trying to kill another tourist. Upon Dadd’s confession to murdering his father, he was committed to the Bethlem (aka Bedlam) psychiatric hospital.

Even though he was in the criminal department of one of the most notoriously brutal and unsafe sanitariums in human history, Dadd was encouraged to paint, and it was during his incarceration that he created some of his best-known pieces.

Dadd’s work is notable for its obsessive, almost miniaturist attention to detail. While that often derails paintings by people of lesser skill (it’s hard to focus on the complete image when you’re dithering around with cloak folds and facial wrinkles), Dadd never lost the forest for the trees, and his numerous paintings of fantastical subjects?he was fond of faeries in particular?can be stared at for hours without getting boring. The layers of detail are, if you’ll pardon an insensitive pun, insane.

Today, we know that Dadd was most likely a paranoid schizophrenic whose mind was a troubled and fragile thing, but that doesn’t remove his position as an important Victorian-era artist whose work suggests that, somewhere in there, was the potential for someone awesome.

I’ll leave you with this Guardian analysis of The Fairy-Feller’s Master, which goes into better detail about Richard Dadd’s style and influence on other artists than I can. All I can say is that it’s fascinating, and terrifying, when violence and sophisticated artistry exist in the same person.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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