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Doctors Diagnose Diseases of Subjects in Two Famous Paintings

The doctor will frame you now

Joseph Wright's "An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump," 1768 (The National Gallery)
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Artists are some of the best students of anatomy. Just look at detailed classics like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Albrecht Durer’s Praying Hands or Michelangelo’s many anatomy sketches. In fact, the anatomical detail by many master painters is so good that some doctors engage in a pastime known as "diagnosing the canvas," or identifying medical conditions afflicting the models in, and sometimes the artists of, history’s greatest paintings.

Recently, doctors have picked out illnesses in two famous canvases. Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, reports in the journal Clinical Rheumatology the identification of a rare skin disease on one of the figures depicted in 18th century English painter Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1768 An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, reports Rossella Lorenzi for Discovery News.

The painting is an Enlightenment masterpiece depicting an engrossed scientist pumping the air out of a glass chamber with a cockatoo inside to demonstrate the properties of a vacuum as spectators looked on. Notably, the man standing to the right of the scientist has a nasty, bumpy rash on his face and hands.

“When we look at the painting with much higher detail, it is clear the father character has a skin rash that is consistent with the disease of dermatomyositis,” Ashrafian tells Lorenzi. Dermatomyositis is an inflammatory disease affecting both the muscles and the skin. The rashes on the father's hands were the telltale signs of the disease known as Gottron's Papules. Yet Wright recorded the affliction long before scientists described dermatomyositis in 1891.

“The depiction of the disease is so clear and accurate in the painting that it must have reflected the actual existence of an underlying disease in the portrayed father character,” Ashrafian says.

Earlier this month, Mayo Clinic pediatric neurologist Marc Patterson also made a painting diagnosis. In Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting ​Christina’s World, Patterson spotted the disease responsible for the awkward position of the picture's central figure, who was Wyeth's neighbor in rural Maine.

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," 1948 (Museum of Modern Art)

This figure, Christina Olson, suffered from a mysterious disease that gradually diminished her ability to walk. At the time, locals believed she had polio, but the disease was never definitely diagnosed before her death.

Olson was born in 1893, before the large-scale outbreaks of polio hit the U.S., writes to Christopher Wanjek at Live Science. As a three year old, she walked on the outer edges of her feet but her limbs gradually weakened, leaving her immobile in her 20s. She may have also lost some sensation in her limbs—when she fell asleep next to a stove in her 50s, she supposedly burned herself without noticing.

“All of these things to me speak against polio,” Patterson tells Wanjek. Polio symptoms tend to be worst at the beginning of the disease and improve over time, the opposite of Olson's experience. Instead, Patterson believes she suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditary condition of the peripheral nerves that afflicts about 2.8 million people worldwide.

It’s fun detective work, but can also serve a serious purpose. Some medical schools, including Harvard and Yale, have courses to help doctors improve their attention to detail by diagnosing conditions in famous paintings, writes Amy Dockser Marcus for The Wall Street Journal. In a world of x-rays, MRIs and other tools, diagnosing the canvas forces the students to pay attention to what’s right in front of them.

“Doctors see things that art historians might overlook because they come at a work of art without preconceived notions,’’ Karen Goodchild, chair of the Art and Art History Department at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina tells Marcus.

The paintings don't just capture the models' afflictions: The way a painter paints can reveal ailments of the artist as well. For instance, ophthalmologist Michael Marmor described Degas' degrading central vision based on the deteriorating detail in his paintings, Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik report for Scientific AmericanSimilarly, neuroscientists examined 36 self-portraits by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, concluding that the painter's eyes were likely abnormally spaced. This lack of stereovision may have actually aided him in translating the 3-D world to the 2-D canvas.

Monet, too, had eye problems, suffering from cataracts. In 1918 he explained to a reporter how the cataracts affected him. "I no longer painted light with the same accuracy. Reds appeared muddy to me, pinks insipid, and the intermediate or lower tones escaped me." In 1922, he had the lens of his right eye removed, which improved his color vision and some of his paintings. It may have even given him the ability to see ultraviolet light.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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