Last night, Aili Kurtis of Perth, Ontario, wrote, “I want to draw your attention to ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ — the condition of being dangerously overwhelmed by beauty in either art or nature. Have you or any of our readers experienced it?”
Thanks, Aili. The condition was first described in 1979 by the Italian psychiatrist, Gaziella Magherini, after studying more than 100 cases among visitors to the Uffizi in Florence. A concentration of particularly beautiful art can cause rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations. It’s named after the 19th century French author, Stendhal, who described the experience in his 1817 book, Rome, Naples, and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.
In my case, it happened when I first laid eyes on Monet’s panoramic water lilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. At the time, I thought my breathless confusion and pounding heart was akin to the opera buff who jumps so far out of his seat that you can see the entire orchestra pit beneath his bottom. In other words, I figured it might be a form of self-applause for my own sensitivity. Apart from the excitement of finally seeing in the flesh what one has so often seen in books, I concluded there was more to the condition than I originally thought.
Life is a passage through a museum of beauty. While the presence of art may be disarming, for artists and others the experience of the wonders of Nature may even rival other high exaltations. Let’s face it, though, folks range widely in what turns them on — think of those who get their kicks from hockey, golf, bridge, poker, bowling, skiing, antique music-boxes or numismatics.
Knowing Stendhal, you might guess why he was close to being face down in Florence. Stendhal was an aesthete, an enthusiast, a humanist, and an all-round imbiber in the joys of life — a lot like many who might be reading this letter.
PS: “As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.” (Stendhal, nom de plume of Marie-Henrie Beyle, 1817)
Esoterica: While artists may succumb to the Stendhal Syndrome, it’s often the observant aficionado who really gets sick. But, like Aili wrote in her note, I’m thinking artists are rather frequently attacked. Readers may consider sending their Stendhalian experiences to email@example.com. Regarding my own visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce, I, too, stepped onto the sizzling piazza in a state of delirium. Perhaps knowing of Stendhal’s prior visit had done me in, but more likely it was because I’d been standing over the remains of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. One tends to run a temperature in that sort of company — a condition that, in my case, was only cooled down by a Florentine gelato.
Art school experiment
by Ed Varney, Courtenay, BC, Canada
In the early ’90s, Terry Loychuk, Gilles Foisy and I did a project at the Emily Carr College of Art which was inspired by Magherini’s research. We created an art viewing booth and used a pulse meter to measure people’s physical reactions to various artworks and then asked them questions about what they had experienced. The results of our experiment have never been published. Our original theory was that people were not really conscious of what they liked which turned out to be somewhat true, but a more interesting observation was that, independent of what they said, people responded more to black and white images and paintings than they did to colour. Our conclusion was that black and white images spoke to a deeper level of the subconscious than colour. Perhaps someday, we (or somebody else) should repeat the experiment with a larger number of people (we tested about 100) and see if they would reach the same conclusions.
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Every face tells a story
by Apryl Anderson, Aix-en-Provence, France
A walk in the woods or a museum visit often have the effect of helping me remember that the world really IS a better place, but my one and only true ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ moment was in the Zwinger (the Old Masters’ Gallery) in Dresden 2 years ago. There is a room of 18th century pastel portraits that absolutely swept me away! Every face tells a story, and it truly took my breath away.
Creativity experienced as a dialogue
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA
I’ve been an artist who has mumbled to “himself” for many years while wrestling with a new opus. I was quite self-conscious about this initially, but it turned into a regular feature of my process. It was only in later years that I more fully appreciated what this was really all about. Most denizens of Western culture probably think of art-making as a monologue — a one-way flow of creative energy from the artist in an inspired moment. Once begun, the work is imagined to take form by way of the maker’s talent, insight, imagination, skill, inspiration — even “genius” in special cases. Such a view probably stems mostly from looking at finished works without the benefit of having much first-hand experience of its particular process.
When I was teaching in a college studio arts program, one of our graduate students remarked that she experienced creativity as a dialogue rather than a monologue. This nailed it for me: the agency which I was really talking to rather than just “me” was the “muse,” the “other,” the embodiment of that aspect of the work which seems to have a life of its own. I fully agree that there’s an element of surrender involved here. Many readers will remember the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his “dummy” Charlie McCarthy. Daughter Candice Bergen tells of entering his room unannounced, to find him talking to Charlie. She listened quietly for a couple of minutes before Edgar noticed her presence. He said “Oh, you caught us! I actually talk with Charlie in private all the time; he is one of the wisest people I ever met!”
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Wider presence of Stendahl syndrome
by Alana Dill, Alameda, CA, USA
Whoa, it’s not just me! Just thought I was kind of nuts. I had a very similar experience at NYMOMA, looking at a large painting of Monet’s water lilies. I have amblyopia, which means one eye is so different in prescription from the other that my dominant eye (which is nearsighted) takes over. My “lazy” eye doesn’t consciously register unless forced to. Looking at the lily painting, which was so large, and its contrast of coral-to-pink flowers, green leaves, and deep blue water… well, my eyes danced around and there were so many after-images that it literally looked like the water was sparkling and moving. That’s the physical description. The emotional description is that I burst into tears and had to sit down and cry. I was pregnant, too, so that’s part of it. But it was the painting that triggered this reaction, not the pregnancy.
It’s pretty rare to be so captivated by still art. I’ve had strong emotional reactions to music or to particular scenarios in nature (i.e. Yosemite Valley and the Grand Tetons). And then there are movies. I think Stendahl syndrome, or variations on it, might be pretty common, we just don’t notice them so much.
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Painting gets a sound track
by John DeCuir, La Crescenta, CA, USA
My Stendhalian experience came when I was in New York, working on a film location. It was a Sunday, our one day off, so I donned my earphones (plugged into my pocket radio, no iPods in those days) and headed out to walk the town and perhaps do a little sketching. Visiting the Museum of Modern Art was not on my agenda that day but it started to rain, and then the rain came down in sheets. As I found myself walking past the museum, I took cover. Once inside and coming around the corner, I spotted Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, an old favorite of mine. At that very moment, a moment of total serendipity, Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night” came booming in over my earphones. Fortunately there was an empty bench nearby upon which I collapsed and my Stendhalian experience began. It ranged from palpitations to heat flashes. A lovely print of Starry Night hangs in my studio, and always will, as a reminder of that most wonderfully visual and melodic moment.
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Overcome by Rothko
by Diane Furlong, Oranda, Virginia, USA
This is not quite the same thing, but I am still “dangerously overwhelmed.” There is a small gallery within the larger Phillips Collection gallery in Washington, DC that is devoted to the work of Mark Rothko. I always approach the Rothko Room with a growing feeling of nervousness for I know what is to come. It never fails that when I stand in the center of the room surrounded by the 4 Rothkos on the walls, I am overcome with emotion. It washes down over me in a powerful wave and I can hear the beginnings of celestial music. Then the tears start filling my eyes and the moment slowly fades as I realize the other viewers must think there is something wrong with me. Thank goodness there is one bench in the room because I must sink down upon some sturdy support to collect myself again.
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Connecting with a Rembrandt
by Bob Drake, Damariscotta, ME, USA
Interesting that there is a clinical description for this, as it suggests that it is more prevalent than we might expect. I personally had the experience standing in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait in the Musee D’orsay. As I looked at the image I realized that he had stood pretty much where I was standing, and looked into his own eyes and knew that he was an old man and was soon to die. Gone was the bravura and youthful strength of earlier self-portraits. The feeling was overwhelming. I had to take a seat for a while, as tears welled up in my eyes. What a communication over the centuries.
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Monitoring the emotional barometer
by Robin Leddy Giustina, Sacramento, California, USA
I walked into the room in the Uffizi filled with all of the Botticelli’s and my emotional barometer went from a 5 to 25, in one fast second. I burst into tears! Now, I am not like that. I consider myself an even keeled sort of person. My husband walked into the gallery at that moment and saw me shaking and quivering and the gallery guard looked at the two of us with disapproval because he thought we may have been squabbling. It was just that the Botticelli paintings were so powerfully beautiful and they literally took my breath away. Their collected impact was huge, like an explosion going off and I responded emotionally. I will never forget that moment. I did not know that there was a name for that feeling “Stendhalian.” I learned that I am not alone.
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Awe increases perceived time
by Cristy West, NW Washington, DC, USA
Recent studies at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management suggests that the same experiences that make us notice the vastness of the universe also make us feel there’s more time in the day. Experiences of awe (“the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope, or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world”) may help get rid of feelings of being time-starved and impatient; we actually begin to feel there is more time in the day. And it might make us feel more generous.
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A gift of life
by Natal Natal, Montevideo, Uruguay
When I was at an art university more than 10 years ago, I attended a conference about reactions to works of art, especially crying. I thought it was really interesting, but I never had experienced that until some years later in front of paintings of Spanish painter Carmen Laffon, and that happened to me again in last September when I saw for the first time, paintings of the Impressionists in Brazil, a neighbor country of mine, because where I live is very difficult to have expositions of this magnitude. So I think the emotions are deployed in such way due to how we join in our interior world of perception: the myth, the heart & mind, the profession, the beauty and the tangible reality of the images created. Is an overwhelming experience, perhaps because we are aware of a painting’s existence but is not so easy to reach them and contemplate them, and when it happens it feels like a big achievement and a gift of life (and a gift of the artist to life, too).
Enjoy the past comments below for The Stendhal Syndrome…
oil painting, 30 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Stella Reinwald of Santa Fe, NM, USA, who wrote, “I wonder if there is a name for the feeling of disorientation, incredulity, and nausea that comes over me when I encounter the likes of a Jeff Coons sculpture or a Damien Hirst installation. It’s the feeling of being the butt of a really bad joke. Or maybe worse, it’s as if some people are sharing a good laugh when something horrible has happened and you just can’t bring yourself to join in and convince yourself that anything about it is funny. The suspicion that perhaps I have been transported to an alternate, inverse universe, where amateur is pro, banal is sophisticated and trite/stupid is brilliant.”
And also Jim Oberst of Hot Springs Villa, AR, USA, who wrote, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone had the Stendhal Syndrome upon viewing one of my works!”