Friday, January 2, 2009

Diagnosing the canvas

Like me, you may be intrigued by medical diagnoses made from historical paintings and portraits. At one point during graduate school, I collected a list pursuant to writing a paper, but went in another direction. The paintings below are linked to their sources, not the articles about their presumed conditions, but there is a good article here. Contemporary diagnoses are as follows:

"Sleeping Cupid," by Caravaggio (1571-1610), has been diagnosed with rheumatic disease by C. Espinel.

The subject of The Clubfoot by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was thought to represent an example of hemiplegic cerebral palsy, but M. Ramachandran and J.K. Aronson see the flexion deformity of the wrist with adducted thumb and extended elbow to be evidence of the genetic defect arthrogryposis.

The distinctively gnarled hand of the "Girl with Mandolin" by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) indicates rheumatoid arthritis.
C. Espinel sees signs of breast cancer in "La Fornarina" by Raphael (1483-1520).
Bathsheba at her Toilet by Rembrant van Rijn (1606-1669) reveals an abnormality of the left breast and axilla, previously thought to indicate breast cancer. R.G. Bourne suggests an alternative diagnosis of tuberculous mastitis or a possible chronic lactational breast abscess.
In this unfinished portrait of Mozart, painted by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange in 1782, C.G. Sederholm sees evidence of Grave's disease (exopthalmic goitre) in the musician's eyes.
Portraits of Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) suggest to I. Greaves by the rash on her cheeks that she suffered from lupus.
After looking at Rembrandt's self-portraits, T. Friedman, D. Lurie, and M. Westreich refute C. Espinel's postmortem diagnosis of temporal arteritis based on the changes in his sentinal vein.
According to observations made by J. Dequeker, the models for the painting "The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)--quite possibly his second wife and her sisters-- show clinical symptoms of scoliosis, hyperextension of the metacarpal joints, and flat feet.
The best story I uncovered referred to the long fascination with the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. Speculation that it resulted from changes in her facial muscles brought on by Bell's Palsy was put to rest in 1992 when the Journal of Forensic Science pointed out that it was not a smile at all, but an expression common to those who have lost their front teeth!

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