Home PageBlogMrs. Erickson’s Prinzhorn Story

The following was a Christmas gift from Mrs. Erickson to Jeff Zeig in 1986. Mrs. Erickson wrote this to Zeig, penned by hand.

It is her account of Milton Erickson’s extraordinary talent in being able to diagnosis a psychiatric patient by looking at the art he or she produced:

“Milton was always deeply interested in the manner in which neurotic and psychotic symptomatology, and ways of experiencing and interpreting the world, were manifested in the artistic productions of the artist.

For example, I recall at Eloise Hospital, a borderline psychotic patient, paranoid schizophrenic, I believe was his diagnosis – decorated the patient’s recreational room. He painted the walls and then trimmed them with an ornamental border near the ceiling. It looked like a simple design, but Milton showed me how he had concealed eyes along the design.

One of Milton’s more cherished books was a very rare copy in the German language of Hans Prinzhorn’s monumental and profound study of the art of psychiatric patients: Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Springer, 1922).

Some years ago — probably in the 1950s — Life magazine, then a very popular picture weekly, had a special section on paintings done by mental patients, beautifully printed in color, with a brief description and diagnosis of each artist. I carefully covered all of the captions with opaque paper strips, and then challenged Milton to diagnose each one.

He did not make a single error. In a few, his diagnosis was more general than the actual caption–for example, a post-traumatic head injury patient was diagnosed by him as ‘some sort of organic brain damage.’ But not a single one was in error.

Some years later, I came across a very interesting article about the poet and artist, William Blake. Milton and I both were fond of his poetry. We both knew that he was considered to be a mystic and a visionary, but [we] had not read any biography of him.

I ran across (somewhere) a story about William Blake, describing him as sometimes manifesting psychotic symptoms. As an example, it was described that he had told a friend that he saw before him the ghost of a flea and that he then sketched the ‘hallucination.’ A reproduction of this sketch–a truly weird portrayal–was included.

Fascinated, I blocked off all the open pages except the sketch, showed it to Milton, and without revealing any identification whatsoever asked him to diagnose the artist.

His answer given with no hesitation, whatsoever, was, ‘That picture was done as a hoax–a joke- trying to convince someone else that he was ‘seeing things.’

I said, ‘Milton are you SURE? I have other information that leads me to believe this artist may have been mentally disturbed.’

Milton said, ‘I’m not saying this sketch was done by a well-adjusted person without mental problems. I’m saying that these particular sketches are a hoax…that in doing it, he was putting somebody on.’

All this happened many years ago-definitely before 1970, as I recall being in the Cypress Street house.

On July 9, 1985, I was on a visit to London, England with Janet Hensley and Shirley Bliss. Among places on that day, we visited the Tate Gallery — primarily to see a special exhibit of Turner paintings.

It just so happened that there was an exhibit of sketches, paintings, and manuscripts by William Blake.

Included was the ‘Ghost of a Flea’ — and an account beside it, stating that it had been done as a sketch of a hallucination, for a friend named VARLEY. It also stated that this may have been done as a hoax because Blake knew that Varley was very gullible and could have very well been leading him on.

This was the first time I had ever been aware that anyone except Milton had realized the nature of this sketch.”

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