Study Probes Artist Vision

HMS professor uses science to explain Rembrandt's talent

Harvard Neurobiology Professor Margaret S. Livingstone says with certainty what some baseball fans only speculate: “There is never going to be another Babe Ruth.”

Her claim may seem bold, but she has evidence to support it. Ruth, Livingstone said, was stereoblind, and so perceived depth differently from most people.

“Stereopsis is the ability to see depth by calculating from two flat images something that is vividly three-dimensional,” Livingstone said.

People who cannot do so are stereoblind, a state that is apparent when light reflects in different places in each of a person’s eyes. Photographs of the famous baseball player reveal this syndrome; his left eye wandered slightly from the center. The repression of depth perception in the “wall eye” leads a person to develop “hyperacuity” in the other so that “Babe’s stereoblindness may have been an asset,” Livingstone said.

At Le Louvre a few years ago, Livingstone said, she serendipitously stumbled across another stereoblind talent, Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt, whose famous self-portraits plainly depicts a lazy left eye.

“You wouldn’t normally want to base stereoblindness on paintings,” she said. “But all four self-portraits in the Louvre gallery included a ‘walled left eye.’”

Livingstone and her colleague Bevil Conway, who happens to be a stereoblind painter, found later that Rembrandt’s self-portrait etchings—which are mirror images of the original—portray an averted right eye. Armed with ample evidence, Livingstone and Conway concluded that Rembrandt was indeed stereoblind, a syndrome that may have helped him produce three-dimensional paintings.

“See this image?” Livingstone asked, showing a reproduced painting of a church interior. “This artist obviously went to great pains to make it appear three-dimensional. But close one eye. Now it pops out at you.”

Livingstone demonstrated the kind of hyper-acuity stereoblind people experience. Forced to perceive depth with one eye, “they are actually better at using depth cues.”

Rembrandt’s stereoblindness rendered him highly attune to three-dimensionality and enabled him to portray depth by simply painting what he saw.

“Artists have figured out empirically aspects of the neurophysiology of vision,” Livingstone said, such as the fact that the brain interprets color and luminosity separately. Stereoblind artists are particularly adept at creating realistic images, she said, since they are extremely sensitive to depth cues that most artists train to discover.

Livingstone has since found that many other accomplished artists experienced the same condition as Rembrandt.

“Wyath, Hopper, Stella, Chagall, Calder, Man Ray—that’s a cool one, isn’t it?—all of them were stereoblind,” Livingstone said, as she flipped through images of their lazy eyes in a PowerPoint presentation.

The theory, which began when Livingstone noticed a prevalence of dyslexia among talented artists and suspected a connection, is still unofficial, she said. Livingstone and Conway tested students at a nearby art school for stereoblindness to measure its possible correlation with artistic talent. The data was disappointing, but Livingstone said she is not discouraged.

“The school is very avant-guard,” she said. “We’re going next week to the Ohio School of Design, where students were the best artists in their high school class and were chosen selectively.” She said she anticipates that the higher standard of artistic ability at Ohio will yield more desirable results.