Freud’s View of Artists and Their Influences

by Chris Irvine

Written for Freud: The Personal and Social Theories of Freudian Psychoanalysis in the Modern Age (LARTS 490, Spring 2010)

Sigmund Freud claimed that he was incapable of determining the source of creativity in artists. After making this statement, he went on to give an account of the source of creativity in artists. His three essays, “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood,” “Dostoyevsky and Parricide,” and “The Moses of Michelangelo,” examine in a psychoanalytic context the sources of these artists’ creativity. Even in these essays, Freud maintains that he will not delve into the mystery of artistic creativity and then proceeds to explain why each individual did exactly what he did. In reality, Freud uses each of these artists and selected events in their lives to represent and in his own way prove his theoretical construct of the mind. So, Leonardo da Vinci explains the importance of the father figure in the development of the superego—and what might happen if there were no father, and the id, Freud’s well of unconscious desires, were left to its own devices. He uses Dostoyevsky to show the reader exactly how dangerous the superego can be when the father—or society’s rules—are too demanding. Michelangelo is Freud’s favorite, as becomes apparent early in the essay, and as such, he uses him as an example of the perfect balance of the mind—the harnessing of the id and the superego by the ego.

Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his portrait the Mona Lisa but was truly a Renaissance man, dabbling in science, engineering, and many different styles of painting. This wide-ranging curiosity intrigued Freud and invited him to give a closer—a psychoanalytic—look. The essence of Freud’s findings can be summed up in a single statement: Freud felt that in terms of psychical development Leonardo da Vinci never left his childhood.

Freud focuses on what he calls the instinct to investigate, which he ascribes to Leonardo. This instinct, Freud says, has its origins in childhood sexual researches. Freud says that these sexual researches arise in most children, “or at least the most gifted ones” (452), and are usually brought on by an important event, such as the birth of a sibling. In Leonardo, Freud estimates that his childhood sexual researches were inspired by his parental situation. Leonardo da Vinci was born the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci and lived with his mother alone for at least a few years before he was taken into his father’s house. Freud says that this absence of a father figure in his early years is what sparked Leonardo’s instinct to investigate.

Following this query, Freud says that there are three possibilities concerning the instinct to investigate once a child has undergone his or her initial sexual repression and moved into latency. In the first of these possibilities, the instinct to investigate becomes completely repressed, as do the sexual instincts. In the second possibility, the instinct is strong enough to avoid total repression and “becomes a sexual activity, often the exclusive one, and the feeling that comes from settling things in one’s mind and explaining them replaces sexual satisfaction” (453). Freud says that this scenario is characterized by obsessive brooding. The third possibility, which Freud calls the most perfect, occurs when the sexual instincts have been sublimated from the very beginning into the instinct to investigate. In this scenario, the instincts for research replace the sexual instincts just as in the second scenario but without the obsessive brooding. Also, the instinct for research avoids topics pertaining to sex because it is aware of the repression. This is the scenario that Freud envisions for Leonardo da Vinci.

The title of this essay, “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood,” refers to what Freud cites as Leonardo’s only reference to his childhood. Leonardo mentions a memory he had as a child of a vulture opening his mouth with its tail and smacking him repeatedly across the lips with its tail. Leonardo states that it was a memory, but Freud insists that because of its incredible nature, it is in fact a fantasy that he invented later in his life and then transposed to his childhood. In typical psychoanalytic fashion, Freud says that the tail is a phallic symbol and that the vulture represents a strange alteration of Leonardo’s mother. The reason Freud gives for the vulture’s taking the place of Leonardo’s mother is this: Leonardo was aware that he had no father and in his fantasy replaced his mother with an aggressive male symbol to represent his absent father. Freud says that in early childhood, boys assume that women also have a penis, and thus the vulture’s tail is Leonardo’s mother’s “penis.” This fantasy, which Freud describes as a latent homosexual desire, reflects back upon Leonardo’s affection for his mother and his reminiscence of the time when she took care of him (i.e., breastfed him).

The most important part of this essay is how the aforementioned circumstances affected Leonardo’s adult life and productivity. Leonardo was obsessed with painting images of the Madonna and child, which Freud asserts is a direct representation of himself with his mother. Also, Freud argues that the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa is in fact representative of Leonardo’s mother’s smile, which is why he used it for so many of his female portraits. At the same time, Leonardo was fascinated by everything around him and was always getting distracted by things about which he could learn. He also made a number of what Freud says might be called useless contraptions that were in fact just mechanical toys that he submitted for court festivities and the like. In psychoanalytic terms, Leonardo’s id was unchecked by the superego—because it never developed—and maintained its obsession with the mother for his entire life.

While Freud himself says many times that he has great admiration for Leonardo da Vinci and his work, he condemns him for never advancing beyond his own childhood fascinations and problems. According to Freud, if it were not for his overactive instinct to investigate, Leonardo would have accomplished much greater feats in the realm of art.

In his essay on Dostoyevsky, Freud shows no mercy. He begins by describing Dostoyevsky as having four facets to his personality: “the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner” (1). Freud’s first order of business in creating an understanding of Dostoyevsky is to examine more closely the moralist in him. He claims that Dostoyevsky is not really a moralist because he is a sinner; he commits a sin and then punishes himself for it, only to continue sinning. If Dostoyevsky were truly a moralist, he would resist his instinctual urge to sin and remain on the high ground. In defending his position concerning Dostoyevsky as a sinner, Freud says that two factors exist in such people: “boundless egotism and a strong destructive impulse” (2), both of which he claims manifest themselves in Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky’s need for love is the manifestation of his boundless egotism, and his strong destructive impulse is directed towards himself instead of outwards, in other words making him a masochist.

Freud then spends the majority of the rest of this essay discussing why and how Dostoyevsky is a neurotic. Freud’s major argument for this concerns Dostoyevsky’s supposed epilepsy, which Freud asserts was not pathological but instead was the product of neurosis. Freud acknowledges that there is little information to back up his claims, because at the time next to nothing was known about epileptic seizures. This limitation, however, does not deter Freud from arguing that the seizures were not pathological, but rather a way for Dostoevsky to punish himself while at the same time punishing his father. According to Dostoyevsky’s brother, Dostoyevsky would leave notes by his bed before he went to sleep asking his family not to bury him for five days if it appeared as though he were dead because he may be having a seizure. Freud says that these types of seizures “signify an identification with a dead person, either with someone who is really dead or with someone who is still alive and whom the subject wishes dead” (5). He comes to the conclusion that during these seizures, Dostoyevsky is playing the role of his father and punishing himself and his father simultaneously.

Freud describes the Oedipus complex and how the dissolution of it leads to a father identification but at the same time, depending on the intensity of a subject’s bisexual disposition, leads to choosing the father as a sexual object. He says that Dostoyevsky demonstrated a bisexual disposition of relative strength. Dostoyevsky’s father was a strict and brutal disciplinarian whom he despised, indentified with, and loved. Freud also articulates that the dissolution of the Oedipus complex is coupled with the creation of the superego, or in other words, setting up the father identification in the ego as its own distinct voice. Because Dostoyevsky’s father was so strict, his superego is accordingly extremely harsh and sadistic.

Freud again does not keep his word that psychoanalysis can do nothing to understand artistic endeavors. In the later section of this essay, he readily engages in analyzing Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and comes to the conclusion that Dostoyevsky’s own family and emotional history are contained within it. The themes of a death wish against the father and guilt for that death wish are the central topics of the novel. Freud insists that Dostoyevsky’s entire life was a manifestation of those two themes; Dostoyevsky hated his father and wanted to kill him because of his brutal treatment but simultaneously felt an extraordinary guilt at wanting to kill his father.

Freud was particularly enamored with Michelangelo’s towering statue, Moses, and speaks passionately of his many trips to see it. He says that no work of art had ever had such an impression upon him. In his essay entitled “The Moses of Michelangelo,” Freud psychoanalyzes the statue following his usual method of suggesting ideas and then disproving them to come up with his final answer.

The majority of this essay is spent discussing why Michelangelo’s statue is positioned exactly the way it is and what that positioning means to Freud. The first question that Freud poses is whether the statue is meant to portray a particular moment in the life of Moses or rather to be a general study in character. Freud states that the conclusion most come to is that it is a portrayal of Moses coming down from the mount and beholding his people worshipping the Golden Calf. Moses is seated with an expression on his face that Freud quotes Thode as saying has “wrath in his threatening contracted brows, pain in his glance, and contempt in his protruded under-lip and in the down-drawn corners of his mouth” (526). Freud thinks that this is the perfect description of the facial expression given to Moses. The tablets upon which the commandments are written are at an angle under his right arm, which is pulling back from the left; his right hand is holding a lock of his beard.

The conclusion that Freud draws from his analysis of the sculpture is this: Moses has just seen his people sinning against God, and his reflexive reaction is of rage; however, he holds back, because as he is rising to rain judgment upon his people, the tablets begin to fall. Thus, he stays his anger to carry out his divine mission. After his specifically art-oriented analysis, Freud analyzes Michelangelo’s sculpture in a broader historical context. It was made to be guardian over the grave of Pope Julius II, and Freud insists that this is why Moses is positioned this way. The Moses of the Bible is always represented as a wrathful and angry servant of a wrathful and angry Old Testament God, but Freud says that Michelangelo’s Moses is in a sense better than the original Moses. The Biblical Moses let his rage get the best of him and destroyed the tablets, but Michelangelo’s Moses stayed his rage for the benefit of all.

According to Freud, Michelangelo made his sculpture of Moses to be so different from the Biblical Moses as a reminder to himself to keep his own emotions and instincts in check. Michelangelo and Pope Julius II were not always on the best of terms, and both had their own agendas that were often in conflict. Freud thus declares Michelangelo to be both master of himself and of the external world. He has learned to relinquish his instinctual demands for his own benefit and integration in society.

Perhaps the most famous of all of Freud’s metaphors is that of the horse and rider. This metaphor is put forth in his essay, “The Ego and the Id,” and describes the relationship between those two mental constructs. The id, the infinite source of unconscious instinctual energy, is represented as the horse that is much stronger than the rider, representative of the ego or the mostly conscious rationalizing part of the brain, but that has to yield to the rider’s demands. The rider, however, if he or she is not strong enough to control the horse, must acquiesce to some of its demands or else risk being thrown off. Leonardo da Vinci and Dostoyevsky, in Freud’s world, were not entirely in control of their horses. Freud’s Michelangelo was in complete control—and that’s why he won the race.


Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Dostoevsky and Parricide” 1928. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1945) 26: 1-8.

“Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: Norton, 1989. 443-481.

“The Moses of Michelangelo.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: Norton, 1989.  522-539.



  1. Pingback: Brothers | XR4TI

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