Art Historical Musings

Book Review: “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood” by Sigmund Freud

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Thursday, October 17th, 2013

A Case Study of
Psychoanalysis as an
Art Historical Method

Freud's Leonardo bk cover

Turn-of-the-nineteenth century Vienna was a fertile time for scientists, intellectuals and artists as the planets aligned to create what has been called “The Age of Insight.”  The mind became an object of intense scrutiny for practitioners of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and the literary and visual arts.  New methods that were developed in pursuit of understanding human nature from a biological perspective found usefulness in the study of art and artists.

One resident of the city, Sigmund Freud, created a system of indirect investigation into the psyche using personal experiences like dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, and artistic productions.  Calling his method psychoanalysis and taking it beyond the confines of his medical practice, Freud applied it everywhere without reservation, writing about jokes and everyday missteps, romance and war, and creativity and art.

Ever curious about Italy and its artists, Freud wrote a book-length analysis of Leonardo da Vinci based on a memory the artist had included in his Codus Atlanticus.  In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, the doctor uses psychoanalysis with great conviction to answer intriguing questions about this Renaissance master and scientist.

The first German edition of the book, published in 1910, was followed by four more (1919, 1923, 1925 and 1943).  An English translation titled simply Leonardo da Vinci appeared in 1916, followed by an additional two (1922 and 1932) before the one under consideration here.  In 1964 Alan Tyson, working under the general editorship of James Strachey with Anna Freud and Alix Strachey for The Standard Edition, translated the text with an expanded title for this first American edition.

In his book-length essay, Freud takes as his starting point Leonardo’s description of an event from his childhood, using a flawed German translation of the original Italian, to understand why Leonardo traded art for other inventions and took off in pursuit of scientific knowledge.  In typical Freud writing style, the psychoanalyst anticipates all manner of resistance throughout the piece, beginning by assuring those who would question his motives that his intentions are not “‘[t]o blacken the radiant and drag the sublime into the dust’” but rather to further understand a man that he referred to as “among the greatest of the human race.”

Before he tackles the childhood memory, Freud describes Leonardo’s struggles with his art, beginning with the perfectionism that made each painting a major endeavor of upwards of several years and left more than a few unfinished.  He cites Vasari and later art historians who quote Leonardo’s contemporaries on the subject, and mentions several specific paintings as examples, including the Last Supper, where the artist’s frustration with the rapid execution required of fresco painting resulted in the technical disaster that has challenged conservationists ever since.

From there Freud begins an elaboration of Leonardo’s personality based on observations by those who knew him in some way, maneuvering closer to his primary thesis by proposing that the artist “represented the cool repudiation of sexuality.”  He finds evidence for this in Leonardo’s own words as quoted by Edmondo Solmi, an Italian philosopher of Freud’s time.  Soon enough the psychiatrist addresses Leonardo’s homosexuality, declaring that even though the fledgling artist had gotten into trouble with the law for it when he was in Verrocchio’s studio and surrounded himself with beautiful young boys once he was a master, for sure he never actually engaged in sexual activity.

In another secondary source, Freud finds Leonardo averring that “[o]ne has no right to love or hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature.”  Applying that to the artist’s assumed abstinence, he notes that in this case “[t]he postponement of loving until full knowledge is acquired ends in a substitution of the latter for the former.”  Thus, for Leonardo, investigating took the place of creating art and of producing much of anything else.

In his element now, Freud asserts that around age three most children go through a period of “infantile sexual researches” usually precipitated by the advent of a new sibling, which invites the question: whence babies?  When repression puts an end to this phase, various outcomes are possible.  Freud believed that Leonardo’s unconscious resolution was perfect; by channeling his sexual drive into non-practicing homosexuality and allowing his investigative instinct to reign supreme, the artist-scientist avoided a neurotic resolution, freeing his libido to “act in the service of [his] intellectual interests.”

After establishing this psychoanalytic foundation, Freud provides information about Leonardo’s childhood, noting that the artist was illegitimate, initially lived with his mother, and when five years old went to live with his father, who had recently married.  That these inadequate bits of biographical data are poor substitutes for having the analysand before him doesn’t seem to deter the doctor from basing his conclusions on them.

Finally Freud presents the memory, translated for this book from the German text he quotes, Marie Herzfeld’s translation of the Italian original as it appeared in Nino Smiraglia-Scognamiglio’s edition of the Codex Atlanticus.  Her version erroneously rendered nibio as vulture when in fact it means kite, a much smaller, non-carrion-eating raptor with the ability to hover in the air due to its long, forked tail.  She also omitted dentro (within), which alters the action of the all-important tail.  These changes have been indicated in brackets in the rendering of Leonardo’s words that follows.

It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures [kites]; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture [kite] came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against [within] my lips.

After extolling the virtues of psychoanalysis as a tool for deciphering this passage, Freud points to the obvious erotic content, noting that “tail” (coda in Italian) is a common slang term for penis.  He then goes on to construct an interpretation of the memory that defies Occam’s razor.

Although he acknowledges the similarity between Leonardo’s memory and the dreams and fantasies of women and passive homosexuals, Freud opts to see it as a symbolic representation of the baby suckling at its mother’s breast.  He supports this hypothesis by pointing out that in Egyptian mythology a mother goddess, whose name was Mut (similar to the German mutter for mother), was pictured with a vulture’s head, adding that at the time all vultures were believed to be female.

Freud concludes that the memory represents the overdependence on, and eroticization of, Leonardo by his mother, who used him when he was quite young as a substitute for his missing father.  In the rest of the essay, Freud looks first for confirmation of his ideas to Leonardo’s art–in the special smiles that grace the faces of his women and in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, with its hidden vulture.

As further support, the psychoanalyst pulls in his theories on infantile sexuality, the phallic mother, homosexuality and the Oedipal complex.  He finds indirect evidence in Leonardo’s writings for a negative relationship with his father, linking it to the artist’s homosexuality and his rejection of religion.  Freud even finds meaning in Leonardo’s obsession with flying machines, citing the connection between dreams of flying and sexual performance.

In the final chapter of the book, feigning humility, Freud addresses possible objections to his “pathographical review of a great man,” admitting the limitations of applying psychoanalysis to the biography of someone about whose early life so little is known.  He nonetheless confidently asserts that he has accomplished what he set out to do, showing how the circumstances of Leonardo’s childhood, combined with his inherent capacity to repress and sublimate his primitive instincts, resulted in a celibate artist-scientist forever torn between his art and science.  Although Freud was well satisfied with his conclusions, their unfavorable reception seems to have discouraged him from tackling other art historical subjects.

Freud came to this particular project via a long-standing interest in Leonardo–once remarking in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess on the artist’s celibacy and left-handedness–and had read Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky’s historical novel, Leonardo da Vinci, which he cites in the text as though it were a historical document.  His other bibliographical resources include volumes written on Leonardo by an assortment of scholars as well as a long list of his own publications.

Not unlike Leonardo, Freud was enticed away from his original career path by his curiosity.  Born in Moravia in 1856 but resident in Vienna from age three until he fled Austria for London in 1938, Freud studied biology and medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1882.  Three years later, a trip to the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and time spent with the celebrated expert on hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, changed his professional direction from clinical neurology to medical psychology.  With his Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud moved even further away from the laboratory, confining his research to observations of his psychiatric patients and reflections on his own experiences and psyche.  Out of that work, he developed the practice of psychoanalysis and his theories about the unconscious.

When he decided to pursue an analysis of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud turned to writings by prominent art historians, among them the German Jean Paul Richter (1847-1937) and the Frenchman Eugène Müntz (1845-1902), whose methods happened to be at odds with each other.  Richter, a disciple of Giovanni Morelli (who believed art was best studied by looking at objects with a well-practiced scientific eye), published in 1883 The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, a two-volume work, first in Italian, then German and English, the last of which Freud consulted.  Müntz, on the other hand, believed in the importance of archival research and, opposing Morelli’s focus on connoisseurship, based his studies on documents he unearthed in Italian archives.  His monograph Léonard de Vinci, released in 1899, was one of Freud’s references.

If the psychoanalyst was aware of the caldron of ideas that simmered close by, especially in the Vienna School but also elsewhere, about how best the discipline of art history should be practiced, his bibliography doesn’t reflect it.  The ideological stew included empiricists who looked to science as a model for the investigation of artworks as physical entities in documented contexts, philosophers who approached the study of art from a metaphysical perspective–more concerned with ideas than things, and a new breed of cultural historians, who occupied a middle ground between the two, finding value in each and adding ethnography and psychology to the mix.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1508, oil on wood, 66″ x 44″ [168 x 112 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.


Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, 66.

Sketch of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne from Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, page 66.

Freud seems to have gravitated toward outliers like Walter Pater (1839-1894), a British aesthete whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 1873, had to be recalled because of their anti-religious nature.  In his discussion of specific artwork by Leonardo, the analyst relied on those essays plus the work of two others: Oskar Pfister (1873-1956), a Swedish minister with an interest in philosophy and psychology with whom Freud maintained regular correspondence for many years, and whose discovery of a vulture in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne provided critical evidence for the hypothesis expounded in the book; and German-born Richard Muther (1860-1909), an emotionally expressive writer whose description of images tended toward the “lurid and erotic.”  In fact, Freud’s insufficient knowledge of art history and the scholarship on Leonardo made mistakes inevitable and stood in the way of producing “a meaningful art historical essay on the artist.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-17, oil on poplar, 30″ x 21″ [77 x 53 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Freud referred to the more mainstream writers earlier in the book when introducing Leonardo, his practices and milieu, but switched over to the others later on when analyzing the latent meaning he espied in the artist’s words and images.  For the Mona Lisa, he liked Pater’s perception that it contained “a presence…expressive of what…men had come to desire…the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work.”  And he turned to Muther for observations on the physical relationship among the mothers and baby, and St. Anne’s perpetual youth in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

Because his interest was primarily psychological, Freud could be expected to seek out those who approached the study of art from a similar perspective.  While there is surely much to be gained through the understanding of artists’ intrapsychic development and interpersonal relationships, Freud’s system of thought–psychoanalysis–contains many flaws, not the least of which is his attribution of adult sexual feelings to infants and children.

In explaining Leonardo’s memory, the doctor first must explain how the vulture’s tail comes to be symbolic of the artist’s intense erotic attachment to his mother and how that desire later morphs into homosexuality.  He does this by invoking the phallic mother who is imagined to possess a penis by the little boy appalled at the thought that someone he loves so dearly should lack such a precious appendage.  This intense mother-son bond  is reinforced by Leonardo’s oversolicitous mother and absent father, and the child’s unconscious identification with the idolized mother.  The boy grows up to be a man who love boys in the same way his mother loved him.  Here Freud confuses homosexuals with pedophiles; the former are attracted to other men while the latter prey on vulnerable children.

Because Freud’s reasoning about such Leonardo mysteries as his perfectionism, depiction of smiling women, and turn from art to scientific research depends so heavily on the Oedipus complex and other aspects of his theory of infantile sexuality, it’s important to know how he came to substitute those assumptions for his empirically based seduction theory of hysteria.

In his work with women suffering from what would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but was then diagnosed as hysteria, Freud came to the unavoidable conclusion that their symptoms stemmed from “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences…[in] the earliest years of childhood,” incidents forced upon them by adults in their immediate family environment.  Since most of his patients were women whose fathers came from prominent Viennese families, his observations were met with a chill that forced him to retract his basic premise and instead attribute his patients’ symptoms not to memories but to fantasies growing out of infantile sexual desires for their fathers.  The construction of the Oedipus complex followed.  Boys, Freud asserted, coveted their mothers, wished to do away with the competition, and feared castration at the hands of vengeful fathers.

Had Freud held to his original discovery, perhaps he would have understood Leonardo’s memory of a visit from a bird that places its long tail in his mouth as a screen memory for oral rape.  On that stronger foundation, the doctor could have constructed a different theory about Leonardo’s homosexual activity in Verrocchio’s workshop and his later predilection for boys.

In The Aetiology of Hysteria, Freud observed a link between adult hysterical symptoms and adolescent trauma, which he then traced to childhood sexual assaults.  Rather than seeing Leonardo’s interest in younger males as a manifestation of his over-identification with his mother, the analyst might have chosen the simpler conclusion, that to avoid intolerable feelings of victimization, the artist unconsciously took the role of perpetrator and re-enacted his abuse with others, a common outcome of early sexual trauma.  With that far less complex connection, Freud might then have been able to link Leonardo’s perfectionism with his need to compensate for the shame he carried as a result of being sexually abused.

In addition to those missed opportunities, Freud was led on a wild vulture chase by a significant error in translation.  His excursion into Egyptian hieroglyphics and mythology in support of his contention that Leonardo’s memory of the bird and the appearance of its image in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (as illustrated by his good friend Pfister) proved the artist’s erotic attachment to his mother, while fascinating, must be disregarded.

It would be unfortunate if at this point one concluded that psychoanalysis has little if anything to contribute to the study of art and the artists who create it, for when Freud briefly left behind his obsession with Leonardo’s “vulture-fantasy” and sexualized relationship with his mother and looked instead at his paintings, he had much to offer.  In associating the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa with Leonardo’s memory of his mother’s adoring gaze, and the mother-and-daughter dyad of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne with the five-year-old boy’s relationship with his adopted mother and paternal grandmother, both of whom lived in his father’s house and took over his care from his single mother, Freud kept it simple and raised intriguing questions.  In expounding on those connections, he assumed kindness and tenderness on the part of the pictured women, but one could just as easily see in these images an unconscious wish for an ideal that never was.

In either case, in directly encountering Leonardo’s art, drawing upon limited but salient biographical data and applying the principals of psychoanalysis, Freud introduced to the study of art a potentially powerful tool.  Had he not abandoned his initial discoveries about childhood trauma and spent his genius on devising convoluted theories to explain hysterical symptoms, he might have come to more convincing conclusions about the life of Leonardo da Vinci and made an important contribution to the field of art history.


– Fermi, Eric.  Art History and its Methods.  New York: Phaidon Press, 2011.
– Freud, Sigmund.  Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.  Translated by Alan Tyson.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964.
– _____________.  On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on Art, Literature, Love, Religion.  Edited by Benjamin Nelson.  New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
– _____________.  “The Aetiology of Hysteria.”  In The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.  New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Italian-English Dictionary.  New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
– Kandel, Eric R.  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.  New York: Random House, 2012.
– Kultermann, Udo.  The History of Art History.  New York: Abaris Books, 1993.
– Onians, John.  Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
– Sorensen, Lee, ed.  “Eugéne Müntz” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Jean Paul Richter” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– _______________.  “Walter Pater” in Dictionary of Art Historians,
– Simmons, Laurence.  Freud’s Italian Journey.  New York: Rodopi B. V., 2006.
Wikipedia.  “Oskar Pfister.”  Last modified September 21, 2013.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]


Artist Musings: Art Class

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Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Broadening the Palette
with Steven Assael

Kristin Oil Sketch (2011, oil on panel, 20″ x 16″)

When American Artist magazine debuted its East Coast edition of Weekend with the Masters and offered a three-and-a-half-day studio-based workshop with New York City’s own Steven Assael, artists traveled from as far away as Tampa and Los Angeles to participate.

For this sole New Yorker who took advantage of another opportunity to study with the well-known and respected figurative painter and draftsman Assael, climbing the  four flights of stairs to his studio was the least of the challenges that lay ahead.

First came the list of paints.  Old tubes of colors rarely used had to be flamed with a match before giving ground to plyers.  New colors had to be purchased.  Then a panel had to be covered with (horrors!) acrylic paint–a very bright cadmium red light, at that.  Lead white stayed home; titanium white made a comeback.  The fan brushes–both bristle and sable–that Assael favors had to be purchased.

The day of the first class, the group of ten students plus several helpers gathered around the master as he demonstrated the technique that would trip up everyone over the next two days.  Using a hot-red spotlight and ambient florescent lighting, Assael contrasted bright, warm highlights against cool, blue lights, punctuating them with warm dark shadows, for his signature effect.

Starting with ultramarine blue, he placed his marks to indicate the figure’s location and to suggest a background.  As he began to apply large swatches of color, Assael shifted his palette onto the left side of his canvas; that is, he squeezed piles of paint directly onto it.  He likes his paints handy and believes it’s important to have them under the same light source as the painting.

The magic that Assael performed during those few hours inspired his students when they set up their work stations the following day.  Palettes had to be either vertically attached to the side of the panel or placed between artist and easel.  Students had to work at arm’s length (Assael uses extensions on his brushes to get even further away) and from the shoulder, not the wrist.

Oddly enough, following directions works.  This artist’s first attempt at Assael’s method–the culmination of which is pictured above–proved a most remarkable experience.  Shelving attention to details and focusing on the bigger picture lends coherence and rhythm to a composition, giving it power.  And it’s more fun!  Refinement can safely wait until later.

Lessons learned by practicing Assael’s approach transfer well to other work.  In returning to the Childhood’s Edge painting, this artist has been painting from the shoulder and when working on sketches, first lightly indicating the entire picture.  Look for evidence of these changes in future gallery postings.


Lecture: Meryle Secrest

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Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Biographer Secrest
Questions Authorities
On Artist Amedeo Modigliani

Perhaps a detective in a previous life, Meryle Secrest can’t resist challenging a too-good-to-be-true story.  Expanding on her work as a journalist, she relentlessly pursues facts behind myths surrounding larger-than-life artists and their supporters.  Secrest’s efforts have thus far produced ten biographies, including psychologically insightful ones on Salvador Dalí and Romaine Brooks.  As with her latest, Modigliani: A Life, she ferrets out family and childhood factors to illustrate their influence on the life and artistic development of her subjects.

Undoubtedly a stop on a book tour, Secrest’s talk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Concerts & Lectures Series on March 19, 2011, gave her fans the pleasure of listening to her narrate the circumstances surrounding the evolution of her latest biography.  Curious about the widely accepted version of the life of artist Amedeo Modigliani, she marshaled her ample journalistic skills to go after the truth.

The story of a “darling, gifted artist, willing to live in squalor, who drank and drugged himself to death,” and whose 21-year-old girlfriend, eight months pregnant with their second child, leapt out a window of her parents’ apartment 36 hours after her 35-year-old lover died, reads like a discrete form of “chick lit,” Secrest explained.  In keeping with that particular appeal, she added, her publisher selected the photo that it did to use on the biography’s cover.

Part of a group of artists and their friends who gathered in the cafés of avant garde Paris, Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis.  Enough bad will and grudges survived him to create the negative images that proliferated after his death.

Secrest loves to tell stories and, during the lecture, offered many about her quest for descendants of people close to Modigliani willing to share material passed down to them.  Undaunted by dead ends like tracking down a supposed archive to a museum that never housed them and encountering resistance from the heirs of Jeanne Hébuterne (the ill-fated lover) who refused to speak with her, Secrest hit pay dirt when she located the grandchildren of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron.  The extensive archive the collector’s family made available to her contained valuable material on her artist.

In addition, Secrest benefited from the assistance of several scholars who, well versed in the man and his times, helped her paint a more nuanced picture of Modigliani, especially concerning his substance abuse.  From the Alexandre family, Secrest gathered that the artist never abused alcohol though he drank wine regularly as did his cohorts; he used drugs, legal at that time, seeking to expand his vision.

At this point in the lecture, Secrest introduced the artist’s childhood history, an aspect of her writing that sets her apart from others’ discourses on artists’ lives and works.  In the case of Modigliani, the financial losses of his family prior to his birth and the tuberculosis he contracted at sixteen, which would plague him throughout his life, set him apart from his peers.  The stigma surrounding his disease forced him to manage his recurrences in secret lest he be whisked away to a life in quarantine, the prevailing treatment at that time.  Secrest contends that Modigliani used alcohol and drugs to manage his symptoms and their accompanying pain.

In a 2003 interview with then NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, to his observation that, “You notice other things other people miss,” Secrest replied, “And I love doing that.  I think if I had had an education, perhaps I would have become a psychiatrist.”  That inclination reveals itself in the way she deduces the powerful impact tuberculosis had on Modigliani’s life.

Secrest spoke of the “violent hemorrhaging and fever” suffered by the teenager, whose survival she attributed to his mother’s persistent caregiving.  She then fast forwarded to the adult Modigliani’s fascination with alchemy, death and transformation, relating how he carried around a poem, “a rambling outpouring of rage and despair” by an author who died from tuberculosis at 24.  Her conclusion?  Modigliani’s surviving such a frightening ordeal explains so much about him.

During the remainder of her presentation, Secrest displayed several slides of Modigliani’s paintings, briefly exploring the connections between his life and his art, then focused on her discoveries about his girlfriend.  Analyzing watercolors Hébuterne produced in the months before her death, the biographer surmised that she had planned her suicide well before her lover died.

The lecture ends with the last photo taken of Modigliani and another story, this one about Secrest’s pilgrimage to the artist’s final residence.  She kept looking for a happy ending, she confessed, and finally found it in the apartment.  Never one to ruin a good tale, Secrest refused to give away the ending, instead directing the audience to her new book.


News Item: American Artist Weekend with the Masters

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Sunday, March 6th, 2011

American Artist Magazine
Expands Focus
to Include
NYC Metropolitan Area

During its several decades of existence and until last spring, American Artist Magazine has brought readers instructional profiles of mostly commercial-grade artists with only occasional forays into coverage of realist artists shown in museums and upscale galleries.

When Michael Gormley became editorial director in March 2010, the magazine began to train a spotlight on the New York City art world.  Known to this writer from his days as dean of the New York Academy of Art, Gormley has assigned writers to cover art-historical exhibitions like the Whitney’s show on Edward Hopper and New York-based painters such as Bo Bartlett and Steven Assael.  Now the new editor has remembered the East Coast with a spinoff of the annual American Artist’s Weekend with the Masters, always held in California.

With only a few general events so far, the four-day-long “weekend” primarily offers master classes at an assortment of venues with well-respected artist-teachers, including Assael, Alyssa Monks, Jacob Collins, and Odd Nerdrum.  Though pricey, the 3½-day workshops promise intensely focused instruction from masters of the crafts of painting, drawing and sculpture.

Those interested can register now to guarantee a space in these limited-size classes.  For other sessions, tickets will go on sale later.

American Artist
Weekend with the Masters Intensive


News Item: Nutrition & Art

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Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Portions Grow in Art of the Last Supper

Medical researchers and art historians recently engaged in a food fight about the meaning of changes in the portions and plates represented in pictures of the Last Supper.

The volley began with the publication in the May 2010 International Journal of Obesity of “The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium.”  The article documented results of the examination of 52 realistic depictions of Jesus’s last meal with his disciples.

The scientist brothers who co-authored the piece, Brian and Craig Wansink, observed that “the relative food-to-head ratio in 52 representative paintings of the Last Supper showed that the relative sizes of the main dish (entree) (r=0.52, P=0.002), bread (r=0.30, P=0.04), and plates (r=0.46, P=0.02) have linearly increased over the past millennium.”

(A note for the uninitiated:  P stands for the probability that results could be due to chance.  The lower the number, the more likely they’re not.  Not everyone believes that this method is reliable, but it’s currently the gold standard of proof.)

The Wansinks suggested that current increases in portion sizes have a long history,  and used their findings to support that hypothesis.  Assuming that such changes would be documented in representations of meals, they chose to look at the Last Supper because of how common a subject it’s been.

Art historians take issue with those conclusions.  Objecting to the choice of the Last Supper as a typical meal, Jon Seydl, curator of European Paintings and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art, shared his ideas with ARTNews (Summer 2010).  The focus of the subject is not “about the act of eating food together,” he explained; it has a “specific Christian context.”  He also posited that changes in portion size might be related to the emergence of “still life as an independent genre” and/or changes in plate sizes over time.

Rudolph Bell, author of How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, agreed with the need to look at “the increasing importance of still life over the centuries,” pointing out that “what seems realistic in the 18th century is going to be different from what feels realistic in the 13th.”

Weighing in on significant developments in the history of cuisine, John Varriano, author of Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy, talked about the increase in the variety of things in general and food in particular from medieval to Renaissance times.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, artists and cooks liked to strut their stuff by loading plates and tables with artfully created spreads.

The lack of specificity in biblical texts concerning what was served at the Last Supper gave artists the opportunity to follow the example of chefs preparing 30-course meals based on the greatly expanded cookbooks of the time.  “But,” said Bell, “that doesn’t necessarily mean people were eating more.”

What about another observation made by the Wansinks, that average head size increased concurrently with portion size?  Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of art history at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of many books on Renaissance art, scoffed at the significance of that finding.

Reminding readers that over the years as representation became more naturally realistic and less stylized and symbolic, pictures of the infant Jesus, and children in general, looked less like miniature men and more like typical babies with proportionally larger heads than bodies.  “If you applied [the Wansinks’] methods,” Kemp quipped, “you would decide that over the course of the centuries children’s heads got markedly larger.”

Although one might question these particular findings as proof that portion sizes have grown over many years, no one can dispute the extensive evidence that excess consumption is not a recent invention.  Humans, in times of abundance, have always overindulged.  Survival depends on feasting in preparation for the next famine.  Evolution just hasn’t caught up with the reality of a food industry that purveys more for less, with less (nutritional value, that is) and woe to the human species because of it.


News Item: Neuroesthetics

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Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Knowing Beauty

Objects like Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Degas’s sculpture of the Little Dancer seem to possess a universal appeal.  Less famous pieces similarly work their magic on viewers.  Could this be a brain thing?  And if so, how did it evolve and in what ways does it (or did it) contribute to the survival of the human species?

In Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder (ARTnews, January 2010), Ann Landi described what she discovered when she looked into the burgeoning field of neuroesthetics.  Her interviews with several researchers highlighted an assortment of ways to approach the question of how the brain decides something is beautiful.

First, sensory input streams in through the eyes to be processed by different parts of the brain as color, form, motion and other aspects of vision.  An Impressionist painting by Monet fires up the color area of the brain, a kinetic sculpture like a Calder mobile activates the motion center, a portrait by Rembrandt speaks to the face recognition part.  Color registers a nanosecond before motion.  The perception of beauty activates similar parts of the brain as those involved in desire.  This begins to have some meaning in terms of reproduction, continuing the species.  But wait, love deactivates areas of the brain.  Maybe not seeing things about one’s beloved has benefits.

The brain looks for and finds patterns everywhere.  Having frames of reference makes its job easier.  It looks for the familiar about which it already has knowledge and experience.  Not surprisingly then, ambiguity contributes to the attraction art holds by engaging this propensity of the brain to solve visual puzzles.  The unfinished sketch holds a special draw for the viewer perhaps because the brain gets to participate in a way it can’t when confronted with a highly finished piece.  People project onto artwork (as well as everything else) from their own expectations and ideas.  The more room there is for that, the more appealing the object.

Humans evolved successfully because of their ability to bond, form groups, act in concert with others.  What the next person thinks about an object can influence another’s evaluation of it.  Subjects responded more positively to a painting created in the laboratory when told it belonged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From an emotional perspective, an esthetic experience can entail something other than looking at an object of conventional beauty.  In one experiment, subjects reported being moved by objects they labeled strange and ugly, not just beautiful.  The parts of the brain activated during those times are associated with the default-mode network, an area that gets busy when attention turns inward.  Apparently, a truly compelling object can catapult viewers into their own internal worlds.

Recent discoveries like these intrigue and entice, but the infant field of neuroesthetics has a long way to go before it can explain what happens when the brain is on art.  While most of the current research focuses on individuals’ responses, to understand human’s perception of beauty, neuroesthetics will have to range further afield and tap into other disciplines’ discoveries.  Art making is, after all, a communal activity that dates back at least 31,000 years to the earliest marks on cave walls.  Figuring out why and how it evolved, and uncovering the neural mechanisms that enabled it to develop, pose exciting challenges, not unlike trying to wrap one’s brain around a truly great work of art.