In Brief

Leonardo da Vinci May Have Had a Rare Eye Condition that Affected His Portraits

Other researchers have similarly claimed that other famous painters like Rembrandt and Edgar Degas had the same condition. This study, curiously, uses Salvator Mundi for analysis.

Anonymous portrait (once claimed to be a self-portrait) of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1600. Uffizi, Florence (image via Wikimedia Commons)

New research into Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings speculates that the famous Renaissance artist had a rare eye condition which likely facilitated his ability to render three-dimensional faces and objects with a distinct sense of depth-recession.

Dr. Christopher W. Tyler, a research professor at the City University of London and at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, recently published findings in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Ophthalmology indicating that the artist had intermittent exotropia, a form of strabismus, based upon a scientific review of the artist’s portraits and self-portraits.

Strabismus is a binocular vision disorder characterized by the partial or complete inability to maintain eye alignment on a fixed object. It is usually accompanied by suppression of the deviating eye and consequent two-dimensional monocular vision. Exotropia is a rare form of the disorder that typically manifests as an outward shift of the pupils within the eyelid aperture.

The breadth of Tyler’s research analyzed the geometric angle of eye alignment in Leonardo’s subjects. Based on six artworks (including two sculptures, two oil paintings, and two drawings), the researcher found evidence of skewed ocular angles consistent with signs of the rare eye condition.

Notably, one of the six works that Tyler considered was Salvator Mundi, the painting whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been hotly contested even before it sold at Christie’s’ November 2017 auction for a record $450.3 million. Based on an initial look at Tyler’s research, it’s hard to tell if the painting’s inclusion here enhances attribution claims for art historians, or if it dilutes the researcher’s data set. With so few artworks analyzed, one of questionable authorship certainly casts shade on any definitive conclusions about Leonardo’s eyesight.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time exotropia has been in art news headlines. Over the past few centuries, scientists have claimed that other famous painters have had the same condition, including Rembrandt and Edgar Degas. How this condition affects the formal elements of the artists’ paintings, though, is less clear. Dr. Michael Marmor has written several books on the eye conditions of great painters. He claims, for example, that Degas’ failing vision in old age caused blurry sight, explaining the artist’s shift in style from refined early brushstrokes to a coarser approach later in life. Tyler’s research on Leonardo, by comparison, merely argues about a potential cause of the idiosyncratic facial geometries of his subjects.

Interest in objective analysis of famous painters has proliferated in the last four or five decades. These scientific studies are somewhat reminiscent of — albeit much more rigorous than — Sigmund Freud’s famous 1910 essay psychoanalyzing Leonardo’s paintings as a window into the artist’s childhood.

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