The psychology in art. What can we learn?

Art is frequently used as a tool by psychologists. The psychology of art is actually a field of study in itself. I want to focus here on just one particular function of art: it's ability to illustrate themes and to serve as a metaphor for complex ideas. Sometimes in therapy, a clinician might refer to a work of art in order to express or capture an idea, and along with it a mood and a set of feelings. A painting, for example, can be used to exemplify, summarize and dramatize a theme, and to impress it on the mind of an individual in a way that cannot be done with words alone. The same principal applies with movies and songs, and with stories and myths. What brought this issue to mind is an old postcard that fell out of a book I pulled from the shelf the other day. The card shows painter Winslow Homer's work The Gulf Stream.

Winslow Homer is one of my favorite artists. I have a framed copy of Fog Warning in my office, and during the years I saw patients in therapy, I would often refer to it and discuss it with my clients. Before I talk about Fog Warning, I want to discuss two other works by Homer.

The Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream is a troubling work of art. A man is on a sailboat, adrift in a turbulent sea. Far off in the distance, a schooner has passed him by and a tornado menaces. His mast has been sheered off and his tiller is gone. There is blood in the water and sharks surround him. The ropes on his deck are a symbol of his having somehow been freed (the man is Black and the era is post Civil War), but whether he was on a journey to freedom or not, he is shown in absolutely dire straits, with no chance for survival.

What is remarkable in this work is that the man seems peculiarly unconcerned. He is not shown in despair or distress, or in panic or fear. He looks back towards where he has been, and not towards the ship that could have rescued him or towards the sharks or the storm that threatens. He is not resigned to his fate, but instead, he appears to accept it. In a sense, this painting is a metaphor for the human condition. The man's attitude might be said to represent a strength of faith or simply a strength of character. Emotionally, he is not overwhelmed by his circumstance. In real life, with similar challenges, few people can ever achieve such peace.

Breezing Up
Breezing Up is probably Winslow Homer's best known work. What we seem to see in this painting are four young men enjoying the vitality of life on a pleasant afternoon. Their youth and their carefree manner speaks to the fact that all of the options and possibilities of life are before them. They lounge on the boat in a relaxed and comfortable manner. That is what we seem to see in this work, and even the title suggests optimism and good fortune.

A closer look, however, shows that they are in deep trouble and that they don't really know what they're doing. Perhaps to see that you need to have been in a small sailboat, far from shore on a windy day. With an experienced eye, what you see is that their boat is "heeled far to port with the gunwales in the water," and that the sea below them is churning. The ship in the background illustrates the strength of the wind and highlights the peril and the vulnerability of these youth. The sky is darkening, and they do not seem to appreciate the risks ahead. The available metaphor in this work involves the themes of maturity, judgment and experience, and the lack thereof among these youth.

Fog Warning
Fog Warning is a different metaphor. Again, we see a man alone in troubled waters. Here is how this painting was described by William Howe Downes in American Paintings in the Boston Art Museum
"Men who are accustomed to danger occupy a mental attitude towards it that has no room for melodramatic pose. Simple and sober, the unconscious hero of the picture turns to get the bearings of his schooner as he bends to his oars with all the steadiness of a man who has a long way to row and who must neither waste his strength in spurts nor lose his head. Small amidst the waves of the Atlantic looks his dory, far away seems the vessel, hard and cruel is the complexion of the sea."
It is a metaphor for a particularly complex form of human strength and character. For an individual whose life is troubled and who sees no hope, this work is an inspiration. He is referred to as an "unconscious hero" because emotionally, he is immune to the enormity of his struggle. Instead, he is confident and determined.


Art is a topic of study in psychology because it can speak to our deepest thoughts and most complex emotions. Enduring truths and essential wisdom can often be gleaned from our reaction to and involvement with art. It can educate and it can inspire. And sometimes, it can help us heal.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.