Somewhere in my 50’s I decided to take up painting. One of my first classes was level 1 drawing. Students were given a Rembrandt etching and asked to copy it. The purpose of the exercise was to see how observant we were. Finishing the task early, I waited with a certain degree of smugness for the teacher to assess my work. To my surprise, instead of being complimented, he said I’d failed the assignment. Rembrandt had drawn the central figure’s head overly large, but I had corrected the distortion and returned the head its proper proportion. In doing so, I had imposed my view of reality upon the master’s. Puzzled, I asked the teacher why Rembrandt had committed the distortion. He answered with a shrug. “I can’t explain genius.”
Happily, science has given artistic genius attention of late and the results are surprising. An intense study of Degas’s work shows that his style altered with his failing eyesight. Unable to focus as his eyes grew older, researchers speculate he was unable to delineate fine lines and so his later works “looked smoother and more natural to the painter (filtered through his own visual pathology) than to viewers with healthy eyes. (“Warped Perceptions,” by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Mackink, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2015, pg 24).
Studies of Rembrandt’s work, particularly his self-portraits, suggest he was wall-eyed. (Ibid pg. 25) If so, Margaret S. Livingstone and Bevil R. Conway of Harvard Medical School conclude the artist lacked normal stereovision, an impairment which would affect the way he perceived images. Likewise, asymmetry in the work of 20th Century British painter, Francis Bacon, suggests the “painter suffered from a rare neurological disorder called dysmorphopsia, which produces progressively changing and distorted perceptions.” So writes Avinoam Safran, of the University of Geneva (Ibid pg. 23.)
For decades, critics suspected El Greco suffered from astigmata which would explain the artist’s elongated figures. Recent studies of his drawings, made in preparations for his larger works, suggests the contrary. His preparatory studies show figures drawn with a detailed attention to accuracy and proportion. The elongated distortions only appear in his finished pieces. Apparently, El Greco’s figures were drawn out if proportion by design rather than as the result of faulty vision. (Ibid, pg. 24.)
Science has given us new facts about the artists we revere. But what makes them geniuses is still unclear? Is it a quirk of biology or artistic intention? Like my former teacher, I shrug. Even great science fails to explain great art.