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Margaret Livingstone
Margaret Livingstone with her collection of crooked-eyed artists, including Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Rembrandt. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Lazy eyes aid artists, biologist says

Was Rembrandt's world flat?

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

Margaret Livingstone found herself in a small room at the Louvre museum in Paris with four self-portraits by Rembrandt. She noticed something strange. The eyes of the great 17th century artist are crooked. The eye on the right side of the painting looks straight at the viewer, but the other eye looks off to the side. Because these are self-portraits, Rembrandt did them by looking in the mirror, so his left eye would be the one looking off to the side.

This view led the Harvard Medical School professor of neurobiology to the conclusion that Rembrandt was stereoblind, he could not see three dimensions well. His world was flat. She and her colleague, Bevil Conway, subsequently checked a total of 24 self-portraits and confirmed that conclusion.

In 23 of the 24 paintings, Rembrandt's left eye looks straight ahead and his right eye stares outward, they found. The two also checked 12 etchings that Rembrandt did of himself. In these, the lazy eye, or "wall eye," is reversed.

"Because etchings are made by scratching lines on a metal plate that is used to make a print, what you see in the print is reversed from what the artist drew on the plate," Livingstone explains. "The fact that the eye that deviates outward in the etching is opposite from the one that deviates outward in the painting suggests that Rembrandt actually was stereoblind."

Rembrandt was not alone. Further investigation by Livingstone and Conway, himself a stereoblind artist, found that Gustav Klimt, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Marc Chagall, Frank Stella, Alex Calder, and Man Ray probably had misaligned eyes. Why would so many renowned artists have what some might call a disability?

Rembrandt self-portrait
The eye on the left side of Rembrandt's self portrait looks straight ahead while the other eye looks off to one side, evidence that he was stereoblind; he saw the world in two dimensions.

Livingstone sees it as an advantage. "Stereovision is an important cue for depth perception, yet it can be a hindrance to an artist trying to depict a three-dimensional scene on a flat surface," she points out. "Art teachers often instruct students to close one eye in order to flatten what they see. Stereoblind artists can simply paint what they see. Therefore, the condition might be an asset instead of a handicap."

Looking into Babe's eyes

Livingstone, who studies how the brain processes what the eyes see, also looked into photos of Babe Ruth's eyes. Ruth's ophthalmologist claimed the great home run hitter was almost blind in one eye. There's a dispute over whether the blindness occurred early or late in his life. Livingstone thinks that the photos show it was early, before he made his reputation as king of the home run hitters.

Having a wall eye sometimes leads a person to develop increased acuity in the other eye," Livingstone notes. "So Babe's stereoblindness may have been, like Rembrandt's, an asset. Such people can be better at using nonstereo aspects of vision than those with stereovision." These aspects include things like luminance and shadows.

Mona Lisa
Also, Livingstone has solved the mystery of why people sometimes see a smile and sometimes do not see it on the face of da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

You don't see wall-eyed hitters these days, Livingstone speculates, because they would not pass the National Baseball League's physical.

The best way to test her ideas about stereoblindness and artists is to visit an art school to try to determine if poor stereo sight is especially common among artistically talented people. Livingstone and Conway are working on this. They have collected data from students at a few select art schools and will compare their stereoacuity with college students who major in business or other nonartistic fields.

Livingstone's theory about Rembrandt and other well-known artists has, she says, "met some resistance" from art historians and ophthalmologists. The final results of her studies of art students may change the views of some of these critics.

Other researchers have reported that talented art students show a higher than usual rate of dyslexia, a reading deficit. "We don't know why, but poor stereovision and dyslexia often occur together," Livingston notes. At least two of the artists studied by her and Conway, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close, are said to be dyslexic.

When people's eyes are misaligned, images from the same objects do not arrive in the same place in the visual cortex of their brains. Therefore, they do not develop brain cells that can distinguish between near and far objects. How, or if, the absence of such cells may impact reading skill remains unknown.

Mona Lisa mystery

One thing critics have no trouble with is Livingstone's explanation of Mona Lisa's shifting smile. Look at the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece one way and the lady is smiling. Look another way and the smile is gone.

While writing a book, "Vision and Art," Livingstone stared at the painting again and again. "I finally realized," she says, "that the smile comes and goes as a function of where my eyes are."

To explain that observation, she gives a quick lesson on the human eye. The central part of the retina allows us to see colors, pick out details, and read fine print. The area surrounding the center specializes in black and white, shadows, and motion. When people look at a face, their eyes tend to focus on the person's eyes. When you gaze at Mona Lisa's eyes, your less acute peripheral sight picks up her mouth and shadows from her cheekbones. "The shadows suggest and enhance the curvature of a smile." Livingstone explains.

But when you look directly at her mouth, your central vision doesn't see the shadows, and the smile is gone. "You'll never catch her smile by looking at her mouth," Livingstone declares. "The smile comes and goes as your eyes move around her face."

"I don't mean to take away the mystery," she continues. "Leonardo was a genius who captured something from real life that rarely gets noticed. It took us 500 years to figure it out."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College