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Eyes of the Beheld

Aug 1, 1998 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:43 AM


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Christopher Tyler, a neuroscientist, combines his professional interests with a love of art. While looking at a friend's painting one day, he wondered whether the differing functions of the left and right sides of the brain might somehow be reflected in paintings. So Tyler, who works at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, opened an art book and began drawing vertical lines down the center of paintings. For the most part he saw no discernable trends. But in portraits he discovered an odd phenomenon: the lines he drew consistently fell on one of the sitter's eyes.

Tyler gathered all the books on portraits he could find. Taking 265 artists from the past six centuries, he measured the position of the eyes of their subjects. So as not to bias his research, he studied only the first portrait to appear by each artist in each source, and only those that depicted one person.

He found that two-thirds of the paintings had an eye within 5 percent of the center of the frame's width, and one-third had an eye in the exact center. This held true regardless of the angle of the head and even among modern artists such as Picasso, whose subjects' eyes often appear in unexpected places. In contrast, the position of the mouth in all the portraits was three times as likely as the eye to be off center.

Tyler has apparently stumbled upon a phenomenon of which artists and art historians are unaware. Nowhere in his numerous art books could he find any instruction from any artist to students to place the face, much less an eye, in the middle. Quite the contrary. "The typical thing is to tell people to make the composition off center, that a symmetric composition is boring," says Tyler. That suggests to him that the eye-centering is an unconscious act and may be determined by hidden aesthetic principles operating in the brain.

"With a portrait," says Tyler, "you're trying to capture something about the personality, a sense of the feelings of the sitter. And those are probably best expressed by the eyes. So from that perspective they're the most important feature in the portrait, and you'd wantoeven unconsciouslyoto place them in the most compelling region in the painting."

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