9 Artists Who Are Scientific Innovators—from Leonardo da Vinci to Samuel Morse

Rachel Lebowitz
Feb 20, 2018 8:37PM

Science and art are often seen as disciplines with little in common. But research has shown that artistic and scientific creativity are closely correlated, in terms of psychological profiles, polymath tendencies, and mental strategies. And many people who have pursued both art and science reported one discipline informing their work in the other.

Recently, architects and designers have turned to science to propel innovation. Neri Oxman, for one, founded the field of Material Ecology, incorporating biological research and lab work into her practice to create adaptable, nature-based building materials.

At the same time, many contemporary visual artists are working with scientists to realize their works—Olafur Eliasson and Trevor Paglen among them. But while these artists engage with science mainly through collaboration, rarer are those who have both studied science and worked as practicing artists. The following are nine artist-scientists throughout history, who have invented society-altering technologies, created records of biodiversity, pioneered research on the human body—and merged their scientific pursuits with art.

Samuel Morse

Invented Morse Code

Samuel Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-33. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Morse trained under Benjamin West at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and co-founded the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, yet his career as an artist is largely overshadowed by his contributions to communications. After his paintings failed to receive accolades in America, Morse—who had studied philosophy and math at Yale—turned to electromagnetics, eventually creating the telegraph and Morse code. Nevertheless, his ambitious Neoclassical-style works, like the six-by-nine-foot Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33), and even his portraits of famous sitters like Eli Whitney and John Adams (which he reluctantly created to support himself), are testaments to his well-honed skill.

Leonardo da Vinci

Dissected corpses and developed flying machines

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1498. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Leonardo brought intense curiosity to his self-study of diverse scientific fields—from human anatomy to astronomy and engineering—conducting experiments to postulate and test patterns. He developed flying machines based on his observations of birds, designed early automatic weapons, and dissected corpses to produce detailed notes on, and drawings of, human sinews, muscles, and bones. His focus on anatomy and perspective led to the creation of some of his most well-known works, including the Mona Lisa (1503–19) and The Last Supper (1495–98). Indeed, preeminent art historian E.H. Gombrich argued that Leonardo’s scientific studies, though seemingly disparate, all served his artmaking: He sought to understand (and thus better reproduce) the world around him, as well as elevate art by underpinning it with the then-more-respected discipline of science.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Pioneered research on the human brain

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Drawing of Purkinje cells and granule cells from a pigeon cerebellum, 1899. Instituto Cajal, Madrid, Spain. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Known as the father of modern neuroscience, Spaniard Cajal was the first to suggest that individual cells structure the brain and, in the 1890s, created detailed drawings to illustrate his microscope-aided findings. His Nobel Prize-winning depictions are, even now, valuable sources of neurological information, and attest to Cajal’s artistic affinities (as he originally set out to be an artist before his father pushed him toward medicine). The beautiful ink-on-paper drawings are at times reminiscent of a magnified section of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), a densely branched tree, or a beaded abacus. Some 80 of the thousands he produced are currently on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery through the end of March, then set to travel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in May and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill next January.

John James Audubon

Documented the birds of the United States

Born in present-day Haiti and raised in France, Audubon immigrated to Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, at age 18. In the States, his longtime love of birds became a focused study. He recorded their behavior, researched their migratory habits (even carrying out the earliest-known North American bird-banding experiment), and drew them true to size, along with bits of flora from their environments. Later, he traveled around the country to depict all of the nation’s known avian species, eventually publishing Birds of America (1827–38). The book of 435 life-sized watercolor illustrations cost the equivalent of $2 million to print; a copy of the tome sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2010. As informative as they are artistic, the vibrant, textured images depict the birds from various perspectives, from a regal profile portrait of a Bird of Washington, to a view from below of open-mouthed American Robin chicks about to be fed a worm.

Alfred L. Copley a.k.a. Alcopley

Researched the flow properties of blood

As Alfred L. Copley, he was a Dresden-born doctor and medical researcher who earned German and Swiss medical degrees before immigrating to the U.S. in 1939; founded and edited three scientific journals; and published in-depth research on the flow properties of blood and other biological fluids. As Alcopley, he was an Abstract Expressionist painter who co-founded the artist group The Club in 1949, along with AbEx bigwigs like Ad Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. His canvases—featuring strokes and squiggles of bold blacks, blues, reds, and yellows—are housed in major institutions, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Charted the course for modern ecology

In the mid-1600s, a young Merian, who came from a family of artists, took up drawing and painting. However, her interest in studying insects was unexpected. She raised silkworms and other critters in her early teens, traversed her native German countryside collecting caterpillars, and later, investigated over 150 animal and plant species while on a two-year sojourn in Surinam—the first European expedition of its kind. Her published records of her specimens are the perfect marriage of art and scientific investigation: delicate, highly detailed, colored copperplate engravings, which she paired with written descriptions of the creatures’ life cycles and responses to stimuli. Her ongoing, focused biological investigations were nearly unprecedented for a trained artist. Meanwhile, her methods charted the course for modern ecology, as her images were the first to explore the interactions between plant and animal species.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Powers art with heartbeats and fingerprints

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Room, 2006 inRafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pseudomatismos, MUAC Museum, Mexico City, Mexico, 2015. Photo by Oliver Santana.

Mexico City-born Lozano-Hemmer graduated from Montreal’s Concordia University with an undergraduate degree in physical chemistry in the late 1980s. The following decade, he began channeling his scientific interests into art-making. Utilizing the internet, computer programming, and searchlights, Lozano-Hemmer created large-scale, public installations that rely heavily on viewer participation. As of late, his work has taken on a more biological bent, using viewers’ heartbeats and fingerprints as the on-off switches in his light-based and kinetic works. An exhibition opening in fall 2018 at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum is set to highlight the way Lozano-Hemmer uses this type of biometric data to critique and invert systems of state control and surveillance.

Anicka Yi

Creates olfactory experiences from microbial cultures

Yi’s work hovers between art and biology experiment. The Seoul-born, New York-based artist—though she shirks the “artist” label—arrived at her practice with no art school training and an interest in the most primal of the five senses. Using smell itself as a medium, she creates pungent olfactory experiences from microbial cultures, antidepressants, and live snails. While she does not have a formal science background, she self-studies voraciously, held residency at MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology from 2014–15, and works closely with biologists, chemists, and perfumists to create her unusually evocative scents (which often take sculptural form), as well as installations that function as bacterial petri dishes. Inspired by the disorientation involved in molecular gastronomy dining experiences and science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Yi aims to challenge the cultural hierarchies of smells, and envisions empathy-rich backstories for her works.

Anna Atkins

Photographed the world’s sea algae

Seeking a more accurate way than drawing to depict sea algae, British botanist Atkins began capturing the marine organisms as cyanotypes, the cameraless photography technique that had been invented by Sir John Herschel only a year prior. Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (published in several volumes beginning in 1843) contains some 300 handmade brilliant-blue cyanotypes, accrued over a decade, through which she groundbreakingly documented and identified algae types by name. Intended to accompany William Harvey’s text-only A Manual of the British Algae (1841), Atkins’s publication was the first book that included photographic images—and she is often considered the first female photographer.

Rachel Lebowitz