TAU surgeon sees depression signs in Rembrandt's self-portraits

Plastic surgeon says paintings show that artist suffered only a mild form of depression.

August 5, 2007 22:48
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A plastic surgeon at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center has taken a closer look at the self-portraits of the great 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn and concluded that he suffered from mild depression, but not a serious disease as has been believed. The retro-diagnosis of the artist's self-portraits - a type of paleoepidemiology (the study of ancient diseases) - was performed by Dr. Tal Friedman, who says she would have been an artist if she had not become a physician. "I was always painting, drawing and looking to make the connection between my work and realism artists like Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci," Friedman said. Friedman, who has been chosen for a two-year fellowship in plastic surgery at Pittsburgh University in Pennsylvania beginning this month, lectures at Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine. She recently collaborated with a multi-disciplinary team from the medical and museum worlds to develop a new scientific technique that seeks to understand the aging process. Her dual interest in art and science led to the selection of their first human experimental subject: Rembrandt. Her team applied their technique to 40 of the painter's self-portraits from various periods of his life to diagnose Rembrandt's cause of death, about which there is much speculation. He passed away at age 63, after a life filled with personal tragedy. After analyzing the self-portraits in the most comprehensive manner available to date, the researchers concluded that the painter likely suffered from a mild form of depression. "Rembrandt's self-portraits have never before been looked at by a plastic surgeon," Friedman said. "There have been so many publications trying to analyze his cause of death, but they do not present a complete picture about him and his work. We believe that Rembrandt manifested symptoms of depression, probably not a severe case, because he accepted a new commission not long before his death." Rembrandt endured an inordinate number of personal sorrows, including the deaths of three of his children soon after birth, the premature deaths of his wife and, later, his mistress, and the death of his surviving son, Titus, at age 27. Rembrandt died in October 1669, less than a year after Titus's death. The multi-disciplinary approach was carried out by Friedman and other TAU doctors and art experts, including Dr. Ahuva Golik, a specialist in internal medicine, Dr. Melvyn Westreich from the the medical school's plastic surgery department, and museum curator Doron Lurie of the Tel Aviv Museum. Using their collective experience, the team developed a tool with which they could extrapolate information from people's facial features as they changed over time. The team found a way to understand aging and illness as it appeared on facial features by studying the way the shape of the brow changes over time and when under duress. It is also possible, they said, that Rembrandt suffered from chronic lead poisoning - a common condition at the time, since lead was widely used in paints. Their study, published in the Israel Medical Association Journal (IMAJ), has important implications for both science and art. Some unconventional methodologies used in the research could be applied to the growing movement of holistic medicine, which takes into account a person's complete environment when diagnosing a disease, noted Friedman. These methodologies could also be used to effectively determine the authenticity of a work of art, especially in cases where historical self-portraits are in question.

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