The eye of the beholder

The sensation of a painting’s eyes following you may have more to do with your own eyes than with those of the portrait. Psychology professor James Todd of Ohio State University investigated this well-known effect and discusses it in a co-written article published in the journal Perception. Todd explains that interpretation of paintings is odd in that we’re having two perceptions at once—the perception of the actual image on a wall and the perception of what’s being depicted in the painting. “We interpret the flat image as though it’s three-dimensional,” he says. “The pupil of the eye is what appears closest to you in a painting, and as you look at it from different vantage points, it doesn’t change.”

The “following” sensation doesn’t work for all paintings. Todd notes that it’s important that the painting be looking straight ahead so that the pupil is in the middle of the eyeball. “If a subject of the painting is looking off to the side, then of course the pupil would be in the side of the eyeball, but if the subject is looking straight ahead, it doesn’t matter where you’re looking at him from, the pupil is always in the middle of the eyeball.”

Passing a real person in a hallway, the same isn’t true. You won’t see the pupil as being in the center of his eye unless you’re right in front of him. “But the picture,” Todd says, “is an odd case in that it doesn’t distort in the same way a real object would.”

Kathy Gulrich is a full-time artist and art coach living in New York City.

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