Friday, May 07, 2010

Feynman vs Rembrandt

The Novel-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman was born on May 11, 1918. In May, therefore, he is "the physicist of this month." The May-2010 issue of APS News [1] carries, on its first page, the sketch of a young lady under the title, "Who created this drawing?" The second and last sentence of its caption makes the reader go to page 5.

On page 5, we find a short article with a witty title, "Feynman drew more than diagrams," and a photo. The photo shows four more drawings and two persons, APS President Curtis Callan and his colleague Igor Klebanov. The article explains the followings: The drawing on page 1 was done in 1985 by celebrated Caltech physicist Richard Feynman and that it is one of several that are now at Princeton in the possession of Callan. The works were acquired in the mid-eighties by Princeton, where Feynman had been a graduate student, and were kept in the office of the late Sam Treiman, from whom Callan received them.

The bottom line of the article is as follows:
In the opinion of experts, Feynman was at least as good at drawing as Rembrandt was at physics.
This sentence seems to imply in a humorous manner that Feynman's drawings are pretty mediocre from the viewpoint of experts. To be sure about this, we have to see to what extent Rembrandt studied physics.

In the description of Wikipedia [2], we find that Rembrandt attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden. However, he soon apprenticed to painters and then opened a studio at the age of 18 or so. Therefore, it might be safe to conclude that Rembrandt learned little about physics.

From cautiousness, I made Internet search by the combination of the words Rembrandt and physics; and found the article [3] entitled "The Rembrandt Solution" (the report does not include the word "physics," but one of comments on it does). It is about a technique developed by Rembrandt and other painters and called countershading. This technique creates the illusion of greater dynamic range of light intensities in their paintings than in real scenery. Illusion is the sensory distortion of the physical world. In order to utilize the effect of illusion, painters should know about the relationship between the nature of human senses and physical signals. Then, Rembrandt must have had sharp physical insight. Namely, Rembrandt's drawing technique makes us think that he was fairly adept at physics.

How can we argue about Feynman's goodness at drawing from his physics, conversely? Does his famous invention of Feynman diagrams prove the quality of his artistic skill? This seems to be difficult, though the invention at least indicates that his method of thinking was geometric as well as analytic. Is there any decent idea about this? I expect comments from readers.
  1. APS News, Vol. 19, No. 5 (2010).
  2. "Rembrandt," Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (6 May 2010 at 00:13).
  3. G. Randall, "The Rembrandt solution: What painting’s grand masters can teach today’s digital photographers" (2009).


  1. Comparing arts and physics leads into interesting thoughts.

    I agree with you that Rembrandt must have been adept to physics, at least concerning his ability to observe nature and to transcribe it on paper. In the first half of 17th century, physics was not yet a discipline with much calculations. It was more like natural philosophy and Rembrandt must have excelled in that in his own way. Feynman also excelled in natural philosophy in his own way. He was very good at observing, experimenting, visually representing physical processes. And he had the chance of having a good training in math and theoretical physics (unlike Rembrandt).

    It would be interesting to have the source of the experts's opinion of Feynman being at least as good at drawing as Rembrandt was in physics. Is it just a joke, maybe Feynman self-mocking? Drawing is not an easy art, Feynman needed practice and maybe he didn't have enough time to develop his own style. That Feynman drawing on the front cover of APS news has some particularities: not much light/shadow effect, very regular lines, the eye-lids, the curl around the ear... The fact that it's Feynman's drawing should give it an extra value.

  2. Thanks for your comment full of deep thoughts. While you think that the experts's opinion of Feynman's drawings might be Feynman's self-mocking joke, I don't think so. The reason is that the words, "the opinion of experts," in the APS News article suggest that the plural number of experts in drawing expressed similar judgments.

    I also like drawing (and Feynman). Therefore, I bought a copy of the book The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character compiled by Michelle Feynman soon after it was published in 1995. Michelle writes in the preface of this book that her father left over one hundred sketch books -- a stack more than four feet thick -- with a drawing on every page and that these were made in the period more than thirty years. This indicates that Feynman spent considerable time and energy for drawing.

    The story "But is it art?" in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" also tells us how much he enjoyed this hobby. (I was almost forgetting this story when I wrote the above blog post; but now see that the story is reprinted in The Art of …)

    From these facts I would like to guess this: some of Feynman's drawings were not so bad. (I do not have so much experience in drawing as Feynman. Thus, I cannot make direct judgement from his drawings.)