Rembrandt’s eye saw no depth

The 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn lacked stereoscopic vision, suggest two researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

An optical analysis of Rembrandt’s self-portraits reveals that his eyes tended to gaze away from each other rather than to focus on a single point, say Margaret S. Livingstone and Bevil R. Conway. The artist’s consequent lack of depth perception actually might have helped him render three dimensions onto flat surfaces, they say.

The researchers studied high-resolution images of 24 oil paintings and 12 etchings that are recognized as Rembrandt’s self-portraits and that clearly show the pupils and whites of both eyes. Livingstone and Conway measured the position of each pupil relative to the eye’s center to determine the direction of gaze.

In the self-portraits, Rembrandt’s right eye generally looks straight ahead, while the left deviates outward. To perceive depth, a person’s two eyes must converge on a single spot. Since it is the same eye that wanders in almost all the portraits, the condition probably was chronic, Livingstone and Conway suggest in the Sept. 16 New England Journal of Medicine.

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