Artists vie for long life
Benefits of exercise might explain why sculptors outlive painters.
Looking for artistic longevity? Work in stone, not paint.
So conclude researchers who have found that old-master sculptors lived longer than painters. They suggest that the physical rigours of sculpting boost the immune system. This might explain why, for example, neither Raphael nor Caravaggio celebrated their fortieth birthday, whereas Donatello and Giovanni Bernini lived into their 80s.
Biologist and art enthusiast Phillip Greenspan, of the University of Georgia in Athens, had a brainwave while helping his wife, who is a sculptor. “It is hard work,” he says. “The idea came to me right then — I knew there weren’t many sculptors who died early, but many painters have.”
Greenspan and his colleagues looked at the lifespans of 406 artists, ranging in time from the German sculptor Peter Parler (1330–1399) to the Belgian painter Henri Evenepoel (1872–1899). Lifespans ranged from Titian’s 99 years to sculptor Pierino da Vinci, dead at 23.
With an average life of 67.4 years, the 144 sculptors surveyed lived significantly longer than the 262 painters, who averaged 63.6 years of life. The study is published in Age and Ageing1.
Same but different
It may seem odd to look to artists to confirm the benefits of exercise, but the value of such studies is in finding groups of people who would have been expected to live similar lives. These groups would eat and drink much the same things, and would have the same social and economic status — but there would be one crucial difference. A previous similar study took a similar approach by looking at staff on London double-decker buses in the 1950s. This showed that conductors, always going up and down stairs to collect fares, had less heart disease and longer lives than the drivers.
“It’s always a judgement whether you’re comparing like with like, but this sounds fairly good,” says epidemiologist James Hanley of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who has previously shown that some claims on relative longevity are just a trick of statistics.
But the reason for the longevity difference is harder to prove than the difference itself.
Paint fumes and stone dust
One possible explanation is differences in exercise. Greenspan estimates that sculpting takes about 2.5 times as much energy as painting. (Michelangelo, who was known for his sculptures and frescos, lived to 88 and reputedly painted only one canvas, saying that working at an easel was “good for women and the lazy”.) Many animal studies show that regular moderate exercise helps to fight germs, says Greenspan. And in the pre-antibiotic era covered by his study, most people would have died from infectious disease.
“Regular exercise will provide you with a better immune system,” agrees medical researcher Bente Pedersen of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Besides warding off infection, she says, the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise can protect against diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders.
But in a commentary on the paper2, rheumatologist Jan Dequeker, of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, suggests that toxins, rather than sloth, might be behind the difference. Poisoning from the lead in paint was so common among painters that the disease became known as painter’s colic, he notes.
But these aren't the only options. It is hard to know what other factors may have affected individual artists. Greenspan says that that breathing the dust from stone carving is also dangerous. The lung disorder silicosis, also known as grinder’s disease, is still a hazard to stone workers in developing countries. Unfortunately, he says, the cause of death of most artists went unrecorded.
- Greenspan, P., Heinz, G. & Hargrove, J. L. Age Ageing 37, 102-104 (2008).
- Dequeker, J. Age Ageing 37, 4-5 (2008).