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What Twins Tell Us About Artistic Skill

Both genes and environment make a difference.

Key points

  • Twin studies plus individual twin pairs show genetic effects on artistic skills.
  • Studying twins can help us understand how and why some people become great artists.
  • Training and practice, as well as motivation, are important for success in any field.

I became interested in factors affecting artistic skill when I was an outside reader for a doctoral thesis on this topic. The thesis was later transformed into a book, Twindentity, by Mònica del Rey Jordà, published in 2021. Mònica and her identical twin sister, Gema, are from Spain and are visual artists who collaborate on video artwork and installations.

Twin Studies

There are many twin studies of creativity, but surprisingly few twin studies on visual arts skills. However, two relevant studies are important to review. One of my former students conducted a study of reared-apart twins in which he had judges rate the creativity of drawings of a house and a person made by the twins. Genetic influences were found for the drawing of a person, but not for the drawing of a house. It is likely that there are fewer creative ways to present a house, as compared with a person. We also examined creative personality, a trait measured by the Adjective Checklist. Here, we found genetic influence as shown by the greater identical twin than fraternal twin resemblance.

A twin study of working in a creative profession by researchers in the Netherlands is also of interest. Twins employed in various design fields were among quite a few artistic areas included. Genetic influences were estimated to explain 70 percent of the individual differences. Unfortunately, however, the visual artists were not examined separately. Clearly, a great deal of work remains to be done in this area. But it is also informative to pay attention to artistic twins themselves.

Twin Pairs at Work

David and Pieter Oyens. These 19th-century artists are typical of identical twins who show greater similarity in creativity than fraternal twins. A picture appended to the Netherlands study shows the twins’ portraits that were painted by each other. Interestingly, the twins appear quite different in manner of dress and body posture. Each twin’s use of lighting also seems to differ. Of course, one would want to examine their full body of work before drawing conclusions about their preferred styles and approaches.

Josef and Pere Santilari work together in the same space and at the same time. They combine their separate visions into what they call “the third Santilari,” which emerges when they paint a picture together.

Ephraim and Menashe Seidenbeutal were known as Sashe and Menashe. These twins were born in 1902 to a poor Jewish couple in Warsaw, Poland. Some people claim that when Sashe and Menashe were admitted to Warsaw’s Fine Arts School, the twins alternated taking classes, paying just one tuition. When this was discovered, the school allowed them to continue studying and pay just one fee.

The brothers had a unique emotional bond and created many paintings together. When painting a portrait of a model, one twin might begin, then stop and say, “My brother will come do the nose.” Even their individual work showed similarities in style, color, and form. Unfortunately, the twins’ artistic careers ended when World War II broke out, causing them to seek shelter in Lviv, located in Ukraine. After that, they were in Moscow and then the Bialystok Ghetto. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the twins were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in northern Poland, then to KL Flossenbürg, near Germany’s border with Czechoslovakia. Several days before the 1945 liberation, one twin was beaten by a guard, and when his twin brother tried to save him, they were both killed. The twins passed away too soon under horrific circumstances, leaving behind an extraordinary original artistic collection.

The paintings of the famous Albright brothers, Ivan and Malvin, have been exhibited in many places. In 1945, The New York Times article announced a two-person exhibition featuring these artists at New York City’s Associated American Artists Galleries. Their paintings show some differences—one uses brighter colors with his landscapes and depicts still-lives that appear more natural. However, it was noted that the twins’ paintings “seem not at all inharmonious when hung together.” They did collaborate on the well-known painting of Dorian Gray used in the 1944 film, “A Picture of Dorian Gray,” based on the novel of the same name by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890.

Implications for Artistic Skills

The pairs of twin artists are all identical twins, consistent with twin studies showing genetic effects on artistic skills. (I have only provided a select sampling, too few to draw firm conclusions, but many other pairs appear in Twindentity). Of course, education, practice, and perseverance are needed for an artist to fully develop his or her talents. Everyone can improve their artistic skills, but it is unlikely that everyone will show the same level of ability or interest.

This article was adapted from a more detailed essay in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics. References on which this article is based appear below.

References

del Rey Jordà, M. (2021). Twindentity. Art al Quadrat Publishing.

Gliński, M. (30 April, 2015). “The Twin Brothers Who Painted and Perished as One.” Culture.PL, https://culture.pl/en/article/the-twin-brothers-who-painted-and-perishe…

Jewell, E.A. (23 October, 1945). “Joint Art Display by Albright Twins.” New York Times, p. 26.

Roeling, M. P., Willemsen, G., & Boomsma, D. I. (2017). Heritability of working in a creative profession. Behavior Genetics, 47(3), 298-304.

Segal, N.L. (2022). Twin artists: Unique sources of inspiration and talent. Twin Research and Human Genetics. First view: https://doi.org/10.1017/thg.2022.30

Smithsonian (2022). “Ivan and Malvin Albright, Working on a Painting for the Film The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1944.” Archives of American Art,

https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/items/detail/ivan-and-malvin-albrigh…

Velázquez, J.A., Segal, N.L., & Horwitz, B.N. (2015). Genetic and environmental influences on applied creativity: A reared-apart twin study. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 141-146.

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