Hitler was an artist, unbeknownst to some people. He painted and sketched. In his work, the people were disproportionately large within any given scene. Given his extreme personality, I have often pondered about this. Perhaps an over exaggeration of people in his artwork reflected his own grandiosity about his position in the world.

Is there some connection between the psychology of consistently mistaking the proportional size of people in art work and mental health?


1 Answer 1


I have been drawing for more than twenty years and have observed many people learn how to draw. Getting human (or any) proportions right is the one most difficult part for most people, and that Hitler, who made a living as an artist for years and produced two to three thousand drawings, sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings (Price, 1983), maybe drew people too large in some of them does, it would seem, not reflect anything but his level of artistry – or the expressionistic and new objectivist styles popular at the time: other expressionistic and post-expressionistic artists didn't paint very realistic, either.

Deducing psychopathology from artistic output is at least difficult. "The primary assumptions of art psychopathology theories are unreliable since, as Prinzhorn shows, emotionally troubled people are capable of producing wondrous artworks which compare favorably with the creations of artists and children." (Betts, 2006) Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist and art historian, was entrusted with caring for the collection of art by mental patients begun by Emil Kraepelin in 1919 and expanded it to more than 5000 works in the following years. He published a book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), in which he analysed the paintings from his collection and found no differences to "normal" art.

Prinzhorn attempted to discern the differences between art by healthy individuals and "outsider art", as the artistic output by mentally ill people came to be called, in a more subjective manner. But first experimental results were contradictory as well. In an experiment, art teachers, mental health professionals, and laypeople, were all unable to discriminate drawings by schizophrenic or healthy children (Rubin & Schachter, 1972). The same group of researchers again found that judges discriminated at levels of chance when they were presented with art by schizophrenic and healthy mothers (Rubin, Ragins, Schachter & Wimberly, 1979). But in other experiments by another research group (Ulman & Levy, 1968, 1984; Levy & Ulman, 1974), judges were able to identify art by mentally ill adults and could even be trained to increase discriminative accuracy.

Discriminative ability seems to depend on what aspect of the artwork the judges look at. In a meta-analysis, Susanne Hacking and David Foreman (2001) identify a number of scales (thematic, quality, shape, color, reality, energy, complexity, composition etc.) and found that two of them (content and body detail, with effect sizes of 0.88 and 0.84 respetively) were able to discriminate patients and healthy controls. Using her own instrument, Hacking (1999) was able to correctly identify psychopathology from artwork with 80-90% accuracy by looking at use of color, line quality, and use of the drawing space.

Even in successful experiments, proportion does not seem to be a distinguishing characteristic of psychopathological art. And it is unlikely that other aspects of Hitler's art would show aspects of psychopathology, because, as he himself stated, as a professional artist his works were dictated by this customers: "I paint that which the people want to buy." (Price, 1983)


  • Betts, D. J. (2006). Art therapy assessments and rating instruments: do they measure up? The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33, 422-434.
  • Hacking, S. (1999). The Psychopathology of Everyday Art: A Quantitative Study (doctoral dissertation), University of Keele. Available online at http://www.wfmt.info/Musictherapyworld/modules/archive/stuff/papers/Hacking.pdf
  • Hacking, S., & Foreman, D. (2001). Psychopathology in paintings: A meta‐analysis of studies using paintings by psychiatric patients. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 74, 35-45.
  • Levy, B. I., & Ulman, E. (1974). The effect of training on judging psychopathology from paintings. American Journal of Art Therapy, 14, 24-25.
  • Levy, B. I., & Ulman, E. (1984). An experimental approach to the judgment of psychopathology from paintings. American Journal of Art Therapy, 23, 47-52.
  • Price, B. F. (1983). Adolf Hitler als Maler und Zeichner: Ein Werkkatalog der Ölgemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen und Architekturskizzen. Zug: Gallant.
  • Prinzhorn, H. (1922). Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung. Berlin: Springer.
  • Rubin, J. A., Ragins, N., Schachter, J., & Wimberly, F. (1979). Drawings by schizophrenic and non-schizophrenic mothers and their children. Art Psychotherapy, 6, 163–175. doi:10.1016/0090-9092(79)90040-1
  • Rubin, J. A., & Schachter, J. (1972). Judgments of psychopathology from art productions of children. Confinia Psychiatrica, 15(3-4), 237-250.
  • Ulman, E., & Levy, B. I. (1968). An experimental approach to the judgment of psychopathology from paintings. Bulletin of Art Therapy, 8, 3-12.
  • $\begingroup$ That's alright, Skippy. I'm a bit out of the game as I have exams in two weeks and getting a bit panicky. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Sep 10, 2013 at 13:22

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