Diagnoses Game. What Do Doctors See in the Paintings of Great Artists
"Doctors love to play diagnoses," said Dr. Michael Marmor, professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University and author of several books on artists and vision. Most physicians only communicate their findings to patients. But there is a whole subculture of doctors who are carried away by the histories of diseases of famous dead artists and how these ailments influenced their work.
Art history and medicine have one important thing in common: both disciplines require close observation and some inference, which attracts practitioners who love good puzzles. Recently, these two areas have started to overlap even more. Medical schools in the United States are increasingly incorporating art lessons into their curricula, and research shows that studying art trains doctors' observation skills. This explains why some doctors take an interest in the life and work of masters of art.
Peer-reviewed medical journals are rife with research with diagnoses of deceased artists. The findings are based on both medical records and, in rare cases, analysis of physical remains. But most often luminary doctors turn to the works of the artists for clues.
It should be treated just like a game. Dr. Marmor warns that doctors often operate with imprecise dataand delve too far in their conclusions. "Artists have the right to paint as they please, so the style can change and it doesn’t indicate illness necessarily," he said. "Speculations are always fun, but not when they are presented in scientific journals as ‘proofs'." The seven published studies, discussed below, have used a variety of ingenious methods. Scientists have tried to compile a more complete picture of the physical health of the artists in an attempt to better understand their work.
Michelangelo’s sore hands
, who was already in his late 80s,
wrote to his nephew that his hands,
his main instrument,
were causing him great pain. "Taking notes gives me great discomfort," complained the Italian painter and sculptor. While writing was not easy for him,
working with a hammer and chisel on a solid block of Carrara marble was probably simply unbearable. But modern doctors still cannot determine exactly what kind of joint disease the fingers of the famous sculptor suffered from.
The authorities of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, where Michelangelo is buried, have forbidden the exhumation of his remains for pathological research. Therefore, a team of five medical experts approached the problem creatively. In a 2016 published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, doctors chose to rely on three portraits of the artist, two in his lifetime and one later copy. They concluded that Michelangelo had osteoarthritis (damage to cartilage and surrounding tissue) caused by years of working with a stone.
Squint of Leonardo da Vinci
Artists see the world differently,
and some ophthalmologists attribute this creative vision to the peculiarities of their eyes. A 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association claims that Leonardo da Vinci
had squint. Such a violation leads to a loss of depth perception — and this ailment could explain the extraordinary abilities of the artist. If Leonardo did have a squint,
it would be "pretty comfortable for an artist," writes author Christopher Tyler. He believes that looking at the world with one eye allows you to directly compare nature with a drawn or painted flat image.
In his research,
Tyler compared six works in which the artist is believed to have depicted himself,
including The Saviour of the World
and Vitruvian Man. The scientist substantiated his choice with the words of Leonardo that all his works reproduce him to some extent. Then the ophthalmologist measured the angular divergence of the pupils in these works and averaged it. This indicator corresponded to squinting.
Distorted vision of El Greco
ophthalmologist Germán Beritens argued that the Spanish painter El Greco
painted such elongated human figures because he had vision problems. He claimed that the artist had severe astigmatism. This is a distortion of vision that occurs due to the fact that light on the retina is focused unevenly. This must have made the artist actually see the figures elongated vertically,
which he then transferred to the canvas. Beritens' theory explained El Greco’s uniqueness and caused a sensation when it hit the newspapers.
El Greco, Self-Portrait (1600s). Metropolitan Museum, New York
Nearly a century later, another researcher realized that Beritens' logic was intuitive but flawed. In a 2002 study published in Leonardo, University of California psychologist Stuart Anstis argued that if El Greco had astigmatism, vision would distort both his models and their images. In other words, if El Greco painted a portrait of a nobleman, then both the portrait and the sitter had to look alike in his eyes, this would confirm the diagnosis. But Anstis conducted experiments that showed that people with astigmatism can draw proportional objects. El Greco’s elongation was an artistic expression, not a symptom of vision problems, Anstis concluded. The theory he debunked has been termed the El Greco fallacy.
The mysterious death of Paul Gauguin
When the post-impressionist Paul Gauguin
died in the Marquesas in 1903,
he left four teeth in a glass jar and many speculations about syphilis as the cause of death. The opportunity to answer a number of unanswered questions about his legacy came in 2000. The teeth were extracted from a sealed well near the artist’s hut. Caroline Boyle-Turner,
an expert on Gauguin,
first wanted to confirm that they really belonged to the French,
and then see what can be learned from them.
While cruising the South Pacific, she met by chance William Mueller, one of the founders of the Dental Anthropological Association. Scientists began a joint , the results of which were published in the Anthropology magazine in 2018. The DNA extracted from the teeth was compared with DNA obtained from the buried remains of the artist’s father, previously found in Chile, as well as with a sample provided by Gauguin’s living grandson. The results matched. Then the molars were checked for traces of cadmium, mercury and arsenic, which were the traditional treatment for syphilis in those days — they found nothing.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Gauguin was not a syphilitic. This indicates that he did not take such a medicine, or at least not in the dosage that leaves traces.
Claude Monet’s abstract look
The impressionist painter Claude Monet
created his expressive works close to abstract already at the end of his career. And a 2015 case published in the British Journal of General Practice argues that poor eyesight was the cause of innovation. After sixty years,
Monet’s age-related bilateral cataract began to progress,
which muffled the colours of the surrounding world. In 1913,
an ophthalmologist recommended that he undergo cataract surgery. The artist refused,
frightened by an unsuccessful operation in front of his colleague Mary Cassatt
. He ordered to stick labels on the tubes with paint,
so as not to make a mistake in the choice of colour.
A decade later, Monet still agreed to undergo surgery. And in 1923, the true colours of the paintings created before the operation appeared before his renewed gaze. He destroyed many of them and, after recovering, returned to his original colour palette. "Monet's postoperative work is devoid of bright colours and impasto," notes the ophthalmologist and article author Anna Grüner. "Therefore, it is unlikely that he deliberately switched to a more abstract style in his later works. This reinforces the argument that these works were the result of cataracts and not deliberate experimentation with ."
Metaphysical hallucinations of Giorgio de Chirico
What helped the Italian artist of the 20th century Giorgio de Chirico
to create metaphysical images in his mysterious canvases besides boundless imagination? An article published in 2003 in the European Neurology magazine argues that temporal lobe epilepsy may be the answer. It is a neurological condition that in some cases causes complex hallucinations. In his Gebdomeros (
de Chirico himself wrote that the paintings reflect his hallucinatory experiences. This discovery puzzled doctors,
who tried to establish whether the artist’s visions were the result of a migraine headache or temporal lobe epilepsy.
Giorgio de Chirico, Metaphysical Self-Portrait (1919). Private collection
The article notes that the consequence of migraine in the subjects was usually blurred or deformed vision, which is not typical for de Chirico’s works. His combination of several realities is more like the complex images that arise during partial seizures. However, the study’s author admits that while the neurological medical histories of artists may provide additional information, "they often lack important clinical data, so the final diagnosis remains controversial".
Autoimmune disease of “degenerative” Paul Klee
The last five years of the life of the Swiss and German artist Paul Klee
have been fruitful. He created almost 2,500 works of art,
a quarter of his entire work. But this work was the most physically exhausting for him. Klee suffered from a combination of skin conditions,
and distension of the oesophagus. During his lifetime,
he was not given a final diagnosis,
and almost 40 years after his death,
these ailments interested a young trainee dermatologist Dr. Hans Suter. For decades,
he reconstructed the artist’s medical history,
spoke with his widow and only son,
and studied unpublished letters describing the symptoms.
Suter summarized his findings in a book and article that were published in 2010. He concluded that Klee had a rare autoimmune disorder called diffuse systemic sclerosis. Although he doesn’t seem to have influenced his art style. But Suter believes that the disease worsened after certain stressful events in the life of the abstract artist. This was his dismissal from his post as professor at the Düsseldorf College of Art, criticism of avant-garde work and the stigma of a "degenerate" artist, stuck by the Nazis.
Based on materials from Artsy