Nise da Silveira

Semira Adler Vainsencher
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Researcher
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Nise da Silveira was born on 15 February 1905 in Maceió, Alagoas. Her parents were Maria Lídia da Silveira (pianist), and Faustino Magalhães da Silveira (Mathematics teacher). At age 16, the young woman entered the Faculty of Medicine of Bahia, being the only woman in her class.

It should be remembered that at the time, the women did not have access to the professions of the public service, apart from in teaching and nursing. Nise graduated at the age of 21, specialising in psychiatry, and presented a monograph at the end of her course, a study of women offenders (thieves, murderers and prostitutes) in a prison in Salvador. Married to the sanitary doctor Mário Magalhães, she left for Rio de Janeiro, and for six years, worked in the Praia Vermelha Hospital.

After the 1935 revolution, as a militant of the National Liberation Alliance (ANL), she was accused of being a communist and imprisoned for sixteen months at the Detention House on Frei Caneca Street. When she left prison, she could not reintegrate into the labour market, and only after the advent of the amnesty could she return to public service.

She never complied with the violent methods employed to treat the mentally ill in asylums. Radically against the procedures of the time (confinement, electroshock, insulin therapy and lobotomies), the psychiatrist sought alternatives to treat madness in activities focused on expressiveness. She considered the idea of inclusion, transformation and healing through art as the basis for the treatment of mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia. Such a disease, she asserted, was nothing more than a manifestation of various “states of being” triggered by extreme situations, responsible for the breakdown of the ego.

According to one of her proposals, in 1946, the director of the Pedro II Psychiatric Centre (now the Municipal Institute Nise da Silveira) commissioned her to found the Occupational Therapy Section. To do so, the doctor distributed pencils, paper, brushes and screens to the patients of the National Psychiatric Centre. With these tools, she planted the seeds of her ideas: humanisation and art therapy. The methods were so revolutionary that even the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung praised her work. Today, the area she developed is called Occupational Therapy.

In 1952, Nise founded the Museum of Images of the Unconscious in Rio de Janeiro, with a collection of more than 300 thousand pieces of work, gathered in the workshops of painting and modelling, the result of her patients’ artistic production. This Museum originated from the Pedro II Psychiatric Centre Section. In the beginning, workshops were geared to the various artistic languages, including music, dance, theatre, handicrafts, painting and woodcuts. Over time, however, the areas of painting and modelling have assumed prominent positions.

Nise also founded the Casa das Palmeiras – a rehabilitation clinic and day-care centre for former patients of psychiatric hospitals, and where volunteers ran the art workshops.

In September 1957, she participated in the 2nd International Conference of Psychiatry in Zurich and presented the work Expérience d’art spontané chez des schizophrènes dans un service de therapeutique occupationelle (in collaboration with Dr Pierre Le Gallais). Also in this conference, she exhibited a part of the collection of the Museum of Images of the Unconscious. The exhibition was opened by Dr Jung himself, in recognition of the relevant work developed by Nise.

The Brazilian physician participated as a member and founder of Societé Internationale de Psychopathologie de l’Expression, with headquarters in Paris in 1960; and in 1965, promoted the publication of the first issue of QUATERNIO magazine, edited by the C.G. Jung Study Group.

Among others, she published the following books: Essay on the Criminality of Women in Brazil, Official State Press, 1926; Jung Life and Work, Editor José Álvaro, 1968; Occupational Therapy – Theory and Practice, Casa das Palmeiras Edition, 1979; The Horses of Octavio Ignacio (Org.) Funarte, 1980; Collection of Brazilian Museums, Funarte, 1980; Casa das Palmeiras, Alhambra, 1986; The Farra do Boi, Numen, 1989; Artaud – the nostalgia of the more (with Rubens Correa, Marco Lucchesi and Milton Freire), Númem, 1989; Letters to Spinoza, Númem, 1990; The World of Images, Attica, 1992; Cats, Léo Christiano Editorial, 1998. She also published about twenty texts in national scientific journals, and organised and supervised more than one hundred exhibitions held in the Museum of Images of the Unconscious as well as exhibitions abroad.

In terms of awards, titles and honours, she received: the Golden Dolphin trophy from the Guanabara State Museum of Image and Sound in 1971; The Global Feminine Personality Award from the newspaper O Globo and Rede Globo de Televisão, in 1981; The Oswaldo Cruz Medal of Merit, Gold category in 1981; The Mário Guimarães Commendation, granted by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Alagoas in 1983; The title Meritorious of the State of Rio de Janeiro from the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro in 1984; The Order of Rio Branco in the rank of Officer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 1987; The title of Professor Honoris Causa from the School of Medical Sciences of Alagoas in 1988; The title of Professor Honoris Causa from the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) in 1988; The Medal of Merit from the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation in 1989; The Pelegrino Junior Medal from the Brazilian Union of Writers in 1992; and others.

From her work, the following institutions were created:  the Friends of the Museum of Images of the Unconscious Society in Rio de Janeiro;  the Nise da Silveira Images of L’Inconscient Association in Paris; the Museo Attivo delle Forme Inconsapevoli, in Genova; the Nise da Silveira Study Centre, in Juiz de Fora/MG; the Bishop of the Rosario Colônia Juliano Moreira Museum, in Rio de Janeiro; the Espaço Nise da Silveira Nucleus of Psycho-Social Attention, in Recife/PE; the Images of the Unconscious Study Centre, at the University of Porto, Portugal; the Nise da Silveira Therapeutic Club Foundation, in Salvador/BA; the Nise da Silveira Nucleus of Expressive Activities, at the São Pedro Psychiatric Hospital, in Porto Alegre; and the Nise da Silveira Research and Study Association, in Salvador/BA.

Filmmaker Leon Hirszman produced the film Images of the Unconscious, with paintings painted by the inmates, and a script prepared by the doctor herself. The film popularised her revolutionary work even more, publicising the humanisation of psychiatric treatment in the country.

At the age of 94, on 30 October 1999, in Rio de Janeiro, the famous Nise da Silveira, a Brazilian woman who was always light-years ahead of other mortals, passed away.

Recife, 29 May 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.



DANÇA como terapia. Disponível em: <http://www.sms.fortaleza.ce.gov.br/sms_v2/Noticias_Detalhes.asp?noticia=170>. Acesso em: 1º  fev 2009.

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VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Nise de Oliveira. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/index.php>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.


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