Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Margaret Naumburg promotes art therapy at Walden School

This year, Margaret Naumburg, a young and energetic 24 year old educator, starts in New York City what she called the "Children's School." A year later, she would rename it the Walden School. Inspired by the ideas of the progressive education movement, the Walden School also offered Naumburg with an opportunity to blend those ideas with Freudian psychoanalytic theory (particularly in relation to the understanding of the unconscious dimension) and with psychotherapy (particularly art therapy).

In those years, Naumburg and her husband Waldo Frank lived fully the effervescence of New York City, and particularly the exuberance of new ideas that emanated in the city’s bohemian subculture which was centered in Greenwich Village from 1909 to 1915. The young couple was part of some of the artistic and intellectual circles that were nurtured in that environment, and among their friends were Charlie Chaplin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and poet John Marin.

At that time, new ideas and practices were also proliferating in the education field. John Dewey had already been living in New York since 1904 (after ten years at the University of Chicago), and from at Columbia University he was becoming to emerge as an international educational leader. By 1910, a group of radical theorists and activists led by led by Emma Goldman founded the Ferrer Modern School, a libertarian institution aimed at promoting a progressive curriculum and cultural transformation.

It was in that turbulent environment which constantly challenged traditional ideas and practices that Margaret Naumburg developed  her first educational ideas. Throughout her formative years as an educator, Margaret was highly influenced by some of the most important theorists of that time. She pursued graduate studies at Columbia with John Dewey. Later on, her thirst for knowledge would lead her to Europe, where she studied at the London School of Economics with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and then at Oxford with Dr. William Brown. She also went to Italy to study with Maria Montessori, whose method she would later criticize. Among the different fields that she undertook were psychology, parapsychology, and physical coordination. She later combined her psychoanalitic and educational backgrounds to create what would become art therapy.

Naumburg was born in 1890. She felt that she had a constrained and miserable childhood, a situation that probably led to her work on art therapy. On this topic, her son Thomas Frank (1983) speculated that "perhaps her feeling both misunderstood and without opportunity to share her inner life during these early years gave her a beginning motivation to battle for less restrictive educational approaches focused on the individual child's emotional needs. And perhaps those early restrictive experiences with her own parents influenced her ultimate approach to art therapy." Her ideas on art therapy were also highly influenced by her association with her older sister Florence Cane (1882-1952), who managed her own school at the Rockefeller Center for a few years, and acted as the director of art for the Counseling Centre for Gifted Children at New York University for many years. Moreover, Margaret invited Florence to collaborate with Walden in 1920, after she criticized the art teaching methods of the school.

At Walden, Naumburg wanted to put into practice her theories, particularly the idea that “the emotional development of children, fostered through encouragement of spontaneous creative expression and self-motivated learning, should take precedence over the traditional intellectual approach to the teaching of a standardized curriculum” (Frank in Detre et al. 1983, p. 113). Her psychoanalytic training influenced her educational methods, and at the Walden School all teachers were encouraged to see a psychoanalyst.

Naumburg was highly influenced by Freud, Jung, and Harry Stack Sullivan, but she also was interested in Eastern Philosophy, the occult, psychodrama, parapsychology, modern surrealist art, and primitive art, all areas that helped her to develop her own theory of art therapy.

Following a non-conventional style, Margaret hired Walden teachers according to different principles than were typical at that time. For instance, many of the teachers that she hired did not have education degrees.

In the early 1920's Naumburg resigned as director from Walden and had a son shortly thereafter. Three years later she divorced Waldo Frank. In 1928 she published her first book (The Child and the World), which was based on her experience with the Walden School. She would later publish four other books. The next two publications, “Studies of the "Free" Art Expression of Behavior Problem Children and Adolescents as a Means of Diagnosis and Therapy (1947) and ‘Schizophrenic Art: Its Meaning in Psychotherapy’ (1950) were the outcome of research that she conducted in the 1940s at the New York Psychiatric Institute, under the supervision of Dr. Nolan D. C. Lewis. Her last two books were Psychoneurotic Art (1953) and Dynamically Oriented Art Therapy (1966). Naumburg taught at New York University into her eighties. She facilitated the beginning of art therapy instruction at the undergraduate level. She never held a teaching position at the graduate level, but she sowed the seeds for the graduate program for art therapy that was started in 1969.


Cane Detre, K. , Frank, T., Refsnes Kniazzeh, C., Robinson, M. C., Rubin, J. A., and Ulman, E. (1983). Roots of Art Therapy: Margaret Naumburg (1890-1983) and Florence Cane (1882-1952) - A Family Portrait. American Journal of Art Therapy, p. 113, 114-116. (Accessed June 10, 2002). (Accessed June 10, 2002).


Citation: Author (2002). 1914 Margaret Naumburg promotes art therapy at Walden School. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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