Wall-Eye May Have Helped Rembrandt's Vision
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Sep 16, 9:24 AM (ET)

BOSTON (Reuters) - Rembrandt, the 17th-century Dutch master known for his skill in using light to carry perspective, may have been wall-eyed, a U.S. researcher proposed on Wednesday.

An analysis of 36 self-portraits of the great painter suggest he had a strabismus -- a misalignment of one eye that caused it to point slightly outward.

This condition, popularly known as wall-eye, may have given Rembrandt van Rijn an advantage in translating three-dimensional scenes into two-dimensional paintings, said Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard Medical School neurobiologist.

"It illustrates that disabilities are not always disabilities. They may be assets in another realm," Livingstone said in an interview.

"I like the idea that there may be a biological basis for different talents, even if it's something as dumb as a lack of depth perception."

An inability to see with world with normal depth perception can be an advantage to an artist, who must flatten a view to render it accurately, Livingstone said.

Art teachers often advise students to close one eye when they compose a painting. Livingstone and Harvard co-author Bevil Conway looked at 36 self-portraits painted by the prolific artist. In 23 out of 24 oil paintings, Rembrandt's right eye gazes to the right while the left eye looks straight ahead, they write in a letter in this week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Livingstone said because the paintings were done looking in a mirror, the left eye is probably the one that was off center.

A dozen etchings he did of himself show the other eye off center. But left and right are reversed in an etching, which is made by scratching lines on a metal plate and using the plate to make a print.

Livingstone said the works show Rembrandt's errant eye to be gazing off center by an average of 10 degrees.

As a result, Rembrandt probably could not see in stereo, which requires the proper alignment of the two eyes. About 4 percent of the population suffers a similar problem.

Only one oil painting shows the correct orientation of the eyes. "We wonder whether Rembrandt painted it from an etching, or whether it was painted by a student looking directly at Rembrandt, and not at a mirror image," the researchers wrote.



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