By Rachel Lebowitz
Science and art are often seen as disciplines with little in common. But research has shown that artistic and scientific creativity are closely correlated, in terms of psychological profiles, polymath tendencies, and mental strategies. And many people who have pursued both art and science reported one discipline informing their work in the other.
Recently, architects and designers have turned to science to propel innovation. Neri Oxman, for one, founded the field of Material Ecology, incorporating biological research and lab work into her practice to create adaptable, nature-based building materials.
At the same time, many contemporary visual artists are working with scientists to realize their works—Olafur Eliasson and Trevor Paglen among them. But while these artists engage with science mainly through collaboration, rarer are those who have both studied science and worked as practicing artists. The following are nine artist-scientists throughout history, who have invented society-altering technologies, created records of biodiversity, pioneered research on the human body—and merged their scientific pursuits with art.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1498. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Leonardo brought intense curiosity to his self-study of diverse scientific fields—from human anatomy to astronomy and engineering—conducting experiments to postulate and test patterns. He developed flying machines based on his observations of birds, designed early automatic weapons, and dissected corpses to produce detailed notes on, and drawings of, human sinews, muscles, and bones. His focus on anatomy and perspective led to the creation of some of his most well-known works, including the Mona Lisa (1503–19) and The Last Supper (1495–98). Indeed, preeminent art historian E.H. Gombrich argued that Leonardo’s scientific studies, though seemingly disparate, all served his artmaking: He sought to understand (and thus better reproduce) the world around him, as well as elevate art by underpinning it with the then-more-respected discipline of science.
Morse trained under Benjamin West at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and co-founded the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, yet his career as an artist is largely overshadowed by his contributions to communications. After his paintings failed to receive accolades in America, Morse—who had studied philosophy and math at Yale—turned to electromagnetics, eventually creating the telegraph and Morse code. Nevertheless, his ambitious Neoclassical-style works, like the six-by-nine-foot Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33), and even his portraits of famous sitters like Eli Whitney and John Adams (which he reluctantly created to support himself), are testaments to his well-honed skill.