12 Famous Artists With Synesthesia

Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV
Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

Synesthesia is a condition in which the brain links a person's senses together in a rare manner, prompting unusual sensory responses to stimuli. People with synesthesia, for example, might see a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet. Those who experience synesthesia “hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes” in a remarkably consistent fashion. For example, someone who sees "1" as burnt orange will always see "1" as burnt orange—unlike, say, someone who hallucinates colors while on LSD.

Scientists still disagree as to what causes synesthesia. Some claim it is a series of learned responses, but most point to a neurological foundation. Some studies reveal unusual connections in synesthetes' adjacent brain regions, similar to those in babies; in fact, it is believed that all babies have synesthesia until they are about four months old, when the synaptic pruning process normally severs those neural connections.The condition, which occurs in about 4 percent of the population, is more common in women than in men, and appears to be genetic. Though it can manifest in many ways, the most common are grapheme-color, in which numbers or letters produce colors, and chromesthesia (sound-color), in which sounds produce colors or shapes. Unsurprisingly, synesthetes are eight times more likely to work in a creative capacity—and quite a few talented artists through history have had it.

1. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Occupation: Author

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color

Vladimir Nabokov (right) and his son Dmitri (center) dine out with an unidentified woman after Dmitri's debut as an opera singer at the Communale Theatre, Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, on May 2, 1961. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 
A writer of novels, poems, and short stories, Nabokov was not the only one in his family to experience synesthesia—his mother and son, Dmitri, also had chromesthesia. Nabokov’s descriptions of his condition are as captivating and well-written as any of his works, and in his memoir Speak, Memory, he describes his condition: “As far back as I remember … I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical, and by none have I profited much … In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h … among the red, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.”

Nabokov even mentions the moment he and his mother learned of their shared synesthesia, writing, “We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by music notes.”

2. TORI AMOS

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Unspecified

Tori Amos performs during soundcheck at Radio City Music Hall on August 13, 2009 in New York City. Image Credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

 
Amos experiences an unusual type of synesthesia in which sounds produce different images of lights. When commenting on her synesthesia in her book Piece by Piece, Amos said, “The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it … I’ve never seen a duplicated song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”

3. GEOFFREY RUSH

Occupation: Actor

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, spatio-temporal synesthesia

Geoffrey Rush arrives at the 4th AACTA Awards Ceremony at The Star on January 29, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Image Credit: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

 
In an interview, Rush said his synesthesia goes back to his toddler days: “When I was in school, in the very early days, we would learn the days of the week. And for some reason the days of the week just instantly had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue …. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon and Saturday is white and Sunday is a sort of pale yellow.

Rush experiences several types of synesthesia, another of which, spatio-temporal, he describes by explaining, “I can say to my wife, ‘That play opened on Tuesday, May the 8th back in 1982.’ I can remember it had a position in my mind where 1982 is and where May is within that. It’s a kind of series of hills and dales so if someone says King Charlemagne lived in 800 A.D., there is a very definite place where I see that.”

4. DUKE ELLINGTON

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Duke Ellington, circa 1948. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 

In Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington, author Don George recounts Ellington’s statements on how his synesthesia affected his music: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”

5. BILLY JOEL

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia, grapheme-color

Billy Joel performs in concert at Madison Square Garden on May 27, 2016 in New York City. Image credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

 
Joel is fond of his synesthetic experiences, in which songs create worlds of color. As he told Psychology Today writer Maureen Seaberg, “When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens … When I have a particularly vivid color, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of (those) certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, or golds.”

On his grapheme-color synesthesia, Joel commented, “Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color." He associates strong vowel endings—such as -a, -e, or -i—with "a very blue or very vivid green … I think reds I associate more with consonants, a t or a p or an s; something which is a harder sound.”

6. DEV HYNES

Occupation: Singer, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Recording artist Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016 at Los Angeles Sports Arena on August 28, 2016. Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF

 
Though synesthesia can be overwhelming and unpleasant for some, Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, also seems to appreciate his condition. As he told NPR, “When I was younger, I wanted to just, like, throw the whole paint can onto the canvas and just see what would happen … Whereas now, I’m kind of enjoying it and exploring the interesting scientific part of it as much as I can, and trying to celebrate it and invite other people to enjoy it.”

7. ARTHUR RIMBAUD

Occupation: Poet

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color

Portraits of Arthur Rimbaud (left) and his fellow French poet Charles Baudelaire on buildings in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a Paris suburb, in June 2015. Image Credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

 
It’s not definitively known whether Rimbaud had synesthesia, but his poem Vowels strongly suggests as much, assigning color values to different vowels:

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

8. PATRICK STUMP

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, chromesia

Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy performs onstage at Madison Square Garden on March 4, 2016 in New York City. Image Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

 
Fall Out Boy's Stump addressed his synesthesia directly in a blog post in 2011. He stated that “most letters and numbers feel like a color. Music also can have colors associated with them (but this is a lot less pronounced than my grapheme-color associations). I’ve talked to a lot of musicians though and the more I talk to [them] the more I’m finding out that this is fairly common.” Stump is right about that—musicians with synesthesia are quite common.

9. PHARRELL WILLIAMS

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Pharrell Williams on stage during the MTV EMA's 2015 at the Mediolanum Forum on October 25, 2015 in Milan, Italy. Image Credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

 
Perhaps one of today’s most well-known synesthetes, Williams is a firm believer that synesthesia isn’t a disorder but an asset—he implores an NPR interviewer to “dispel the connotation behind the phrase ‘medical condition.’” He explained, “If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, ‘Well, no, I don’t see colors when I hear music,’ and that’s when you realize something’s different.”

Williams relies on his chromesthesia when making music, saying, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.”

10. FRANZ LISZT

Occupation: Pianist, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt at age 30. Original artwork reproduced from a daguerreotype. Image Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 
It must have been interesting to be a musician in one of Liszt’s orchestras. He would reportedly use his synesthesia to help with his orchestrations, telling the musicians, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” Or, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” Apparently, the orchestra initially thought Liszt was just being funny, but over time they realized he really was seeing colors in the sounds.

11. CHARLI XCX

Occupation: Singer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Charli XCX performs during the Red Bull Studios Future Underground at Collins Music Hall on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Image Credit: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

 
Like many musicians, Charli embraces her synesthesia and uses it to make her music: “I see music in [colors]. I love music that’s black, pink, purple or red—but I hate music that’s green, yellow or brown.” From her perspective, Charli says, the Cure’s music is “all midnight blue or black, but with twinkly pink stars and baby pink clouds floating around it.”

12. VINCENT VAN GOGH

Occupation: Artist

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Screens displaying part of a painting by Vincent van Gogh at the 'Van Gogh Alive' multimedia exhibition in Warsaw on November 13, 2015. Image Credit: AFP Photo/Wojtek Radwanski

 
Poor van Gogh. He seems to have been one of those synesthetes who was more impaired than empowered by his condition. One paper highlighted the negative effect of his chromesthesia, noting that when van Gogh took piano lessons in 1885, his teacher realized he was associating the different notes with specific colors. Unfortunately for van Gogh, the teacher took this as a sign of insanity and forced him to leave.

8 Things You Might Not Know About the Louvre

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

It might be the most iconic art museum in the world. Located in Paris, the Louvre (officially the Musée du Louvre) has admitted thousands of cultural artifacts and millions of admirers since opening its doors on this day in 1793. A guided tour is always best, but if you can’t make it to the Right Bank of the Seine, check out these eight facts about the 225-year-old landmark’s past, present, and future.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A CASTLE FORTRESS.

Before French King Philip II left for the Crusades in 1190, he ordered the fortification of the Seine area along the western border of Paris against any antagonists. Crowning the structure was a castle that featured a moat and defensive towers; it also housed a prison for undesirables. Over time, other construction urbanized the area, reducing the need for a combat-ready tower. In the 1500s, King Francis I built his residence on the same site. An art lover, Francis’s home and its collection of pieces hinted at what the Louvre would eventually become. In 1793, part of the Louvre became a public museum.

2. IT BECAME AN ARTIST RETREAT.

Before art was on open display for public consumption, the Louvre invited artists to stay and work on site and treat the building like a creative retreat. In 1608, Henri IV began offering artists both studio and living space in the Louvre. They could sculpt, paint, and generally do as they wished—but by the 18th century, the surplus of distinguished squatters had left the property a bit of a mess, and their residency was eventually phased out.

3. NAPOLEON RENAMED IT AFTER HIMSELF.

Crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t above a little self-glorification. Having spearheaded the transformation of the Louvre from a cultural hub to his own tributary, he had the name changed to the Musée Napoléon and hung the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. The banner lasted until his defeat in 1815.

4. AN ARTIST MADE ITS FAMED PYRAMID VANISH.

In a move right out of David Copperfield’s playbook, in 2016 French artist JR was able to execute an impressive optical illusion using the three-story glass pyramid that sits outside the front of the Louvre. The surface was pasted with black-and-white photographs of surrounding buildings, making it seem like the construct had disappeared entirely. The performance piece was left up for about a month.

5. THE MONA LISA WAS SWIPED FROM IT.

Art heists in movies are typically pretty glamorous affairs, with gentlemen thieves and Swiss-watch planning. But when crooks lifted the Mona Lisa from its perch in the Louvre in 1911, it was a fairly indelicate operation. Three Italian handymen hid in the museum overnight, then removed the painting from the wall and bid a retreat out the door in full view of the public. One of them tried selling it over two years later, but a suspicious dealer phoned police. The ensuing media coverage is thought to be one of the reasons the painting has become one of the most famous in the world.

6. IT ONCE CLOSED BECAUSE OF PICKPOCKETS.

In 2013, nearly half of the museum’s 450 employees refused to come to work because of a nagging pest on the premises: pickpockets. Employees said that the adolescent criminals—admission is free for those under 18—distracted and robbed American tourists and showed only disdain for Louvre workers who tried to intervene. Authorities agreed to increase security measures, and the workers returned to their posts.

7. IT HAS RESIDENT “COPYISTS.”

Few museums sanction forgeries of any type, but the Louvre recognizes the curious subculture of artists who enjoy trying to replicate famous works. Every day from 9:30 to 1:30, “copyists” are allowed to set up easels and study paintings while working on their own replicas. The appeal for the artists is to try to gain insight into the process behind masterpieces; the museum insists that the canvas size not be exactly the same, and that they’re not signed.

8. AN APP CAN HELP YOU FIND AN EXIT.

With more than 8 million visitors annually, the Louvre can often feel congested to tourists unfamiliar with its layout. In 2016, the museum began offering an app that guides users around, offering them a pre-planned tour or an exit strategy. Lost? Hang a left at the Picasso, then a right at the Michelangelo.

7 Missing Historical Treasures That May Never Be Seen Again

The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace
The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace
Branson DeCou, Wikimedia // Public Domain

For all the television shows that set out to solve the world’s great mysteries, and the intrepid adventurers hunting for lost artifacts, some of the most famous treasures of history are still missing. These include one of the most dazzling rooms ever made, a giant yellow diamond, and the work of a renowned Greek poetess. Here are just a few of these enigmas.

1. THE AMBER ROOM

Designed in the 18th century by German sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber artist Gottfried Wolfram, and gifted to Russia in 1716, the Amber Room of Catherine Palace was the pride of the Saint Petersburg area. Lavishly decorated in jewels, gilding, and, of course, panels of amber, it was sometimes called the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

When the German army neared Saint Petersburg during World War II, the curators at Catherine Palace knew they had to hide this treasure. They tried to take it apart, but the dry amber crumbled in their hands; instead they hid it behind wallpaper. German soldiers found the Amber Room anyway, and broke it down into pieces that were packed in crates and shipped to Königsberg, then part of Germany (now part of Russia). For a time, the Amber Room was installed in the Königsberg castle museum. After that, its fate gets fuzzy. Some researchers believe it was destroyed in the bombardments of the war, while others think that it’s still hidden somewhere. Despite periodic claims of it being found—and verified remnants turning up in 1997—most of it remains missing. In 2003, a reconstruction of the Amber Room was unveiled near Saint Petersburg, so visitors can at least get a glimpse of its lost glory.

2. SAPPHO'S POEMS

Painting by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema entitled "Sappho And Alcaeus" (1881)
Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus (1881)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ancient sources state that the Greek poet Sappho penned nine volumes of writing, but only a couple of full poems—and a few hundred lines on shreds of papyrus and potsherds—survive. Some contain just a handful of words, yet they hint at the passion in her work: "I desire/And I crave," one remnant reads. Many of these bits survive thanks to her popularity in antiquity, since her writing was frequently quoted in other sources.

There may be more of Sappho's work to discover. A late 19th- to early 20th-century excavation at a trash dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, turned up valuable fragments of her poems. As recently as 2014, two works on papyrus fragments were identified by an Oxford papyrologist. With any luck, there may still be scattered remains of her poems to unearth in the detritus of the classical world.

3. THE FLORENTINE DIAMOND

According to legend, Charles the Bold—the Duke of Burgundy—carried this 132.27-carat yellow diamond into the 1477 Battle of Nancy as a talisman. The treasure did little to protect him, however, and he fell along with his gem. His mutilated corpse is said to have later been recovered from the battlefield, but the diamond was gone, supposedly picked up by a scavenger who sold it for two francs because he thought it was just glass.

However, in the 1920s the art historian Nello Tarchiani did archival research that revealed the diamond likely had no connection to the duke. The gemstone had originated in southern India, where it stayed until the Portuguese seized the area in the 1500s. Soon afterward, it made its way to Europe and into the hands of a series of illustrious owners, including Ferdinand de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, in 1601. It was in the treasury of the Medicis in Florence that it got its name—the Florentine Diamond—and most likely its glistening, 126-facet double rose cut.

When Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, the last of the Medici ruling family, died in 1743, the diamond didn't stay with the treasure trove she bequeathed to the Tuscan state. Instead, Francis Stephan of Lorraine (who later became the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor) bought it for his wife, Empress Maria Teresa, herself at the end of the House of Habsburg line. For a time, the Florentine diamond became part of the crown jewels in Vienna. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I, and the diamond, it’s believed, was carried into exile in Switzerland by its last emperor, Charles I.

But where is it now? There are many theories on its disappearance, including that it was sold by the exiled emperor, and perhaps cut into smaller gems for that purpose. Others posit that it was stolen and spirited to South America. With no trace of the diamond in years, its whereabouts remain a mystery.

4. FABERGÉ EGGS

The Third Faberge Imperial Easter Egg displayed in London in 2014
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The legendary House of Fabergé was once the largest jeweler in Russia, employing 500 designers and craftsmen to transform everything from mantel clocks to cigarette cases into delicate and elaborate works of art. Their most famous achievement is the series of jewel-drenched Easter eggs they produced for Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II, which the Russian rulers gave as gifts to their wives and mothers. Each egg contained a surprise, from the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg (with a wind-up train made from gold and platinum) to the Bay Tree Egg (shaped like a tree, with a mechanical singing bird emerging from its branches). After the Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov Dynasty—and the imperial family was executed—the new Soviet rulers seized the eggs. Lenin was interested in preserving such cultural heritage, but Stalin saw them as economic resources, and the eggs were sold off. Out of the 50 Imperial Eggs (as the eggs created for the czars are known), seven are missing.

Information on the lost eggs is sparse. There are few photographs—the only image we have of one of the eggs, the Cherub with Chariot Egg, is a reflection in the glass of a display case. Sometimes the surprises inside are detailed in records, and in other cases they remain a mystery. However, in 2012 a Midwest man who had bought what he thought was a fancy doodad for scrap gold happened to do an internet search on the name on the little clock inside: “Vacheron Constantin.” He discovered that his trinket, which he’d bought for $14,000, was one of the lost Imperial Eggs, worth $33 million.

5. CROWN JEWELS OF IRELAND

Lord Dudley, Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, wearing the Irish Crown Jewels
Lord Dudley, Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, wearing what's often called the Irish Crown Jewels
National Library of Australia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On July 6, 1907, regalia belonging to the Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick—referred to as the "Crown Jewels of Ireland"—were discovered to be missing, the keys boldly left hanging in the safe’s lock. The pricey pieces, which included a diamond star and badge, had been presented to the order of knights in 1830. As added insult, five collars of Knight Members of the Order had also been spirited away.

Security was perhaps a bit lax. A safe room had been built for Dublin Castle in 1903, yet the safe that protected the jewels was too big to fit in the door, so it was kept in a library strongroom.

An investigation was immediately launched, but a century later, the case is unsolved. One rumor is that the investigation was halted under the orders of Edward VII because it ended up touching on a sexual scandal at Dublin Castle. One top suspect is Francis Shackleton, second-in-command at the castle, and brother to the famed explorer Ernest Shackleton; some say he may have been trying to raise funds for his brother's polar expedition.

6. ART FROM THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early morning of March 18, 1990, the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston buzzed in two men claiming to be police officers. Once inside, they handcuffed the guards and revealed their true intention: stealing art. They made off with 13 works valued at $500 million, the biggest unsolved art theft in the world.

Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet works are among the stolen art, although strangely, the robbers also opted to take a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag and an ancient Chinese beaker rather than other, more valuable objects nearby. Because the museum’s collection and layout are permanent—both the legacy of the late art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner—the frames of the missing artworks are kept empty, a memorial and a reminder that the burglars are still at large. The FBI believes the paintings made their way to organized crime circles in Philadelphia, but haven’t had a lead since 2003. Currently, the reward is $10 million for information leading to the artworks’ recovery.

7. THE HONJŌ MASAMUNE

At the end of World War II, citizens in Japan were required to turn over privately owned weapons, including historic pieces. Among them was one of the most famous swords ever made: the Kamakura-period Honjō Masamune. Created by Masamune, who lived circa 1260-1340 and is often considered Japan’s greatest sword maker, the sword was celebrated for its strength and artistry.

Its last owner was Tokugawa Iemasa, who brought the Honjō Masamune, along with other heirloom swords, to a Tokyo police station in compliance with the Allied orders. They were handed off to someone in the Foreign Liquidations Commission of AFWESPAC (Army Forces, Western Pacific), then disappeared. Some surrendered swords from this era were brought back to the United States by American soldiers, while others were melted or tossed in the sea. Today, the fate of the Honjō Masamune is unknown.

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