Saturday art blogging: some artists really do see the world differently

by Eszter Hargittai on October 20, 2018

Today’s art post inspiration comes from an unlikely source: JAMA Opthamalogy. The article “Evidence That Leonardo da Vinci Had Strabismus” makes the case that the artist’s exceptional rendering of 3-D in 2-D was in part thanks to his eye condition sometimes referred to as wandering eye. The author, opthomologist Christopher Tyler of City, University of London, examined six pieces thought to be depicting Leonardo da Vinci: “David (Andrea del Verrocchio); Young Warrior (Andrea del Verrocchio); Salvator Mundi (da Vinci); Young John the Baptist (da Vinci); Vitruvian Man (da Vinci) and another possible da Vinci self-portrait.” (quoted from the university’s press release). Ars Technica’s coverage of the piece has helpful visuals. There seems to be disagreement in the art community about whether all of those art pieces depict Leonardo da Vinci, but this is a topic Tyler had already researched earlier. His argument seems convincing to me and is an interesting revelation about the condition under which some artists did that work. Apparently other famous artists also had strabismus (e.g., Rembrandt) or other vision impairments (e.g., Monet, O’Keeffe). I appreciate the angle the Washington Post’s coverage takes on this at the end noting that this should give people with eye-alignment disorders some boost in confidence to counter the discrimination they sometimes face both on the job market and in social situations.



Stranger 10.22.18 at 8:08 pm

When you paint or draw a self-portrait, you observe and render your eyes separately, one at a time. Thus the distortion.


John Quiggin 10.22.18 at 11:34 pm

I remember reading something like this with respect to El Greco and, I think, Modigliani.


bad Jim 10.23.18 at 3:55 am

It’s been suggested that Monet was near-sighted.

I don’t think this is a useful approach. It’s probably best to assume that the effect is something the artist intended, that Theotokopoulos elongated some of his figures to emphasize their spiritual nature, not because he was astigmatic.

(On my one visit to Toledo, it was evident that dozens of us were engaged in the same treasure hunt, each with a different map, criss-crossing the hilltop. Got to see them all!)

An exhibit early works by Joan Miró at the Pompidou left me with the impression that he was manic depressive with a very long cycle. He’d develop a style, pursue it to perfection, then for a year or so produce only angry, ugly, throw-away creations, suddenly blossoming into another period of utterly different magnificence. Then trash again, then beauty again. My guess now is that he just got tired of cranking out piece after piece in a given style.


Eszter Hargittai 10.23.18 at 8:51 am

Stranger – that would suggest that most self-portraits have such eye distortions, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.

Thanks, John, I’ll follow up on those.

bad Jim – having an eye condition seems quite relevant to creating art since it concerns conveying something visual, which is very much related to sight. If you read the coverage of these particular findings (the original piece is behind a paywall and I haven’t been able to read that), it explains why having a condition that makes you see the world in 2D sometimes while also being able to see it in 3D may explain certain artistic renderings.


Bartholomew 10.23.18 at 12:32 pm

The argument made about El Greco is similar – it says that he drew elongated figures because some type of astigmatism made him see them that way. The problem is that this should also apply to the way he saw his canvasses as well, and that to paint what he thought was an elongated figure, he would have had to paint a normal one. As I recall, the more usual explanation for the elongated figures is (or used to be) the influence of Byzantine art.
The article about Leonardo seems to suggest something similar (hard to tell because it’s behind a paywall.) (It also seems to treat portraits of Leonardo as photographs, disregarding any conventions of portraiture.)


Peter King 10.23.18 at 4:36 pm

For a more general treatment, see Patrick Trevor-Roper’s monograph The World Through Blunted Sight.


Wild Cat 10.24.18 at 4:38 pm


El Greco’s enlongated figures may have had the viewer’s perspective in mind (from below, on the floor) looking at his painting (hung high on the wall) to make the work seem symetrycal.


Jim Buck 10.25.18 at 7:40 am


Bartholomew 10.25.18 at 6:23 pm

Wild Cat – Yes, you get that in trompe l’oeil ceilings and the like. However, if it was a question of more effective exhibiting and viewing, you’d have to ask more painters didn’t do it. Why wasn’t it a universal practice? (Or were El Greco paintings hung higher than other peoples’?)

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