Campus & Community

Lazy eyes aid artists, biologist says

2 min read

Was Rembrandt’s world flat?

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?

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.”