A medical mystery: Diagnosing dead artists by their works of art

Leonardo_da_Vinci,_Salvator_Mundi,_detail_of_face_med
Close-up photo of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

More and more students are staring at paintings as part of medical school curriculum. For instance, Stanford students observe art alongside their faculty at the Cantor Arts Center as part of the Medicine & the Muse Program to improve their observational and descriptive abilities — skills that are essential to health care providers.

Some doctors are taking it a step further. Fascinated by how health problems have affected famous artists, they are combing historical records and works of art for diagnostic clues, as a recent article in Artsy explains. And then they are publishing their studies in peer-reviewed medical journals.

According to a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology, for example, Leonardo da Vinci had crossed eyes — a vision disorder called strabismus — that caused him to lose depth perception. Researcher Christopher Tyler, PhD, DSc, from the City University of London, hypothesized this by assessing two sculptures, two oil paintings and two drawings by da Vinci that are thought to portray him. Measuring the average angular divergence of the pupils in these works, he found the mean angle of misalignment to be consistent with strabismus.

Another case study published in the British Journal of General Practice suggests that impressionist painter Claude Monet’s color selection was affected by poor eyesight, since his color palette changed after cataract surgery. “Monet’s postoperative works are devoid of garish colors or course application,” said National Health Service ophthalmologist and author Anna Gruener, MD, in the Artsy article. “It is therefore unlikely that he had intentionally adopted the broader and more abstract style…”

However, Michael Marmor, MD, a Stanford ophthalmology professor and author of several books on artists and eyesight, warns doctors against making firm conclusions.

“Artists have license to paint as they wish, so style is mutable and not necessarily an indication of disease,” Marmor told Artsy. “Speculation is always fun, but not when it is presented as ‘evidence’ in scientific journals.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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