Margaret Naumburg was a 20th century psychologist who helped establish the discipline of art therapy and developed an approach called dynamically oriented art therapy. 

Professional Life

Margaret Naumburg was born in New York City on May 14, 1890. As an undergraduate, she studied at Barnard College. After completing her bachelor’s degree in 1911, Naumburg continued studying at the London School of Economics and Columbia University. She focused on music, speech therapy, and child education; she also studied with Maria Montessori in Rome. When Naumburg returned to the United States, she facilitated the first Montessori class in New York City, and in 1915, she founded her own school, known as the Walden School.

At the Walden School, Naumburg stressed the importance of allowing a child to develop his or her identity by exploring natural abilities, or aptitudes, through creative processes such as performing and visual arts. Naumburg incorporated Freudian psychoanalytics, art, and music into her teaching methods, and she encouraged each staff member to see a psychoanalyst. Naumberg's older sister, Florence Cane, was also a teacher of art, and she joined in teaching at the Walden School for a time. The school saw its first graduating class in 1928 and met with high praise from the academic and professional field.

After leaving the Walden School in the early 1920s, Naumburg shifted her focus to writing. Based on her experiences at Walden, she published the book The Child and The World in 1928. Over the next several years, Naumburg focused on developing the art therapy technique and establishing it as a discipline; she began teaching art therapy classes and gave lectures throughout the state. Naumburg worked with children at the New York Psychiatirc Institute, and in 1947, she published Studies of the "Free" Art Expression of Behavior Problem Children and Adolescents as a Means of Diagnosis and Therapy based on her research at the institute. Naumburg joined the faculty of New York University, where she introduced art therapy at the undergraduate level. Naumburg continued to teach well into her 80s.

She was recognized for her contributions to her field with the Ernest Kris Prize and was also a fellow of the American Psychological Association. 

Contribution to Psychology

Naumburg is widely credited with being the first psychotherapist to use art therapy, and she believed the modality could be used both to diagnose and treat mental health conditions. She directly influenced the introduction of a graduate level program at New York University in 1969. The program remains one of the most highly accredited art therapy programs in the world.

Naumburg's book Dynamically Oriented Art Therapy was published in 1966. Dynamically oriented art therapy uses a psychodynamic approach, influenced by Sigmund Freud. The practice emphasizes the role of the unconscious; Naumburg believed that art could enable unconscious feelings to come to the fore, just as psychoanalysis had been traditionally used to address the unconscious. She frequently used art to help clients both envision and resolve interpersonal conflicts, and argued that the client, rather than the therapist, should interpret the meaning of art.

Art therapy remains a popular approach, although the Freudian emphasis on the unconscious has been largely abandoned. Instead, contemporary art therapy serves as an alternative method for clients to process unpleasant emotions, to gain self-confidence, and to express themselves.


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