Right, Left, Right, Wrong! An investigation of handedness - some myths, truths, opinions and research

What is Handedness?
Measuring Handedness
Handedness Statistics
Handedness and the Brain
Theories of Handedness ‣
Other Handedness Issues ‣
History of Handedness ‣
Famous Left-Handers ‣
A Few Final Thoughts
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Other Handedness Issues - Handedness and Artistic Ability
Contrary to the claims of many, there is no reason to suspect that left-handers are any more artistic than the average person
It is often asserted that, due to the unusual organization of the brains of left-handers (which, as we have seen in the section on Handedness and the Brain, is itself an exaggerated assertion) and particularly the role of the right hemisphere of the brain in creating a person’s visual perceptions, they are more likely to be artistic. An oft-quoted 2008 study by John Santrock suggests that artists, architects, musicians and mathematicians are more likely to be left-handed than the population average.

Lists of famous left-handed artists - usually including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, and others - are duly trotted out in support of this assertion, and copied from website to website with little or no justification or questioning. But, as we will see below, the evidence for many of these claims appears to be far from compelling.

Evidence for Left-Handedness Among Artists

Unfortunately, especially in the case of artists of bygone centuries, we often have very little evidence to work with. Portraits by other painters may provide some evidence, although the more common self-portraits typically show an image from a mirror and must be considered unreliable. The other main forensic evidence involves the orientation of the shadow hatchings used by an artist (typically, right-handers find it easier to hatch from right to left, and left-handers are more likely to hatch from left to right). Finally, biographical details from reliable sources can give independent verification.

A French study, reported in the Revue Neurologique in 1995, of 500 artists using all of these pointers, yielded a percentage of left-handed artists of between 2.8% and 4.7% - i.e. even less than than in the general population - the most famous of them being Raoul Dufy, M.C. Escher, Hans Holbein the Younger, Paul Klee and Leonardo da Vinci. While accepting that in past centuries left-handedness was more likely to be suppressed or hidden, the “real” percentage seems unlikely to be dramatically different from that among the general public.

Specific Claims

Claims for the left-handedness of Michelangelo appear to rest on a single anecdotal reference by a left-handed contemporary artist. Analysis of his hatching, though, suggests that he was in fact right-handed. Also, unlike in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, there is no mention of any unusual handedness from any of Michelangelo’s biographers. The idea sometimes proffered that Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam in the Sistine Chapel (in which Adam is shown extending his left hand) is evidence of Michelangelo’s left-handedness - or even Adam’s for that matter - is frankly ludicrous.

There is even some evidence that left-handed poster boy Leonardo da Vinci may not have been naturally left-handed. He clearly did use his left hand to draw and paint with: there seems little doubt about that. However, some research suggests that he may have been forced to use his left hand due to some accident or deformity of his right (in much the same way as Thomas Carlyle and King Edward III - also usually listed as left-handed - were forced to become left-handed).

Albrecht Dürer is, for some reason, usually regarded as left-handed, although with little corroborating evidence, and the jury remains out due to lack of evidence either way. The same applies to Raphael and to Peter Paul Rubens, who are also commonly reported as left-handed. Vincent Van Gogh was painted by Paul Gaugin as a right-hander and there appears to be no evidence to the contrary,despite the claims of many websites. Edvard Munch sometimes appears on lists of left-handed artists, but his only left hand connection is that, at one point in his life, he injured his left hand in a gun-shot accident. Rembrandt van Rijn is sometimes claimed by the left camp, but has been definitively shown to have been right-handed. Pablo Picasso was also demonstrably right-handed, with clear modern documentary evidence to prove it, and his identification as a left-hander appears to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

On the positive side, Hans Holbein the Younger (although not his father, the Elder) and M.C. Escher both appear to be convincingly left-handed. Paul Klee painted with both his left and right hands, although he preferred the left (however, he wrote with his right). The 19th Century French painter Raoul Dufy was naturally right-handed and wrote with his right hand, but taught himself to paint and draw with his left and even came to prefer it, and so represents a sort of “honorary left-hander”.

Left-Handed Architects

Interestingly, it is often claimed that the right-hemisphere brain dominance of left-handers leads to a disproportionate number of left-handed architects, supposedly due to the right hemisphere’s responsibility for the processing of three dimensional spatial relationships and artistic composition. Setting aside the fact that, contrary to common belief, only about 20% of left-handers are actually right-brain dominant (see the section on Handedness and the Brain), it is notable then that none of the lists of famous left-handers seem to include any famous architects.


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Introduction | What is Handedness? | Measuring Handedness | Handedness Statistics | Handedness and the Brain | Theories of Handedness | Other Handedness Issues | History of Handedness | Famous Left-Handers | A Few Final Thoughts | Sources
© 2012 Luke Mastin