AP
The Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn is seen in this 1639 etching, 'Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill.'
updated 9/15/2004 6:57:16 PM ET 2004-09-15T22:57:16

Harvard scientist Margaret S. Livingstone first noticed it while standing in a gallery in the Louvre two years ago: In Rembrandt’s self-portraits, his eyes seemed to be misaligned.

Back at Harvard Medical School, Livingstone and a colleague looked at more of his many self-portraits and found others with his left eye looking outward, which probably indicated a disorder called lazy eye.

Consequently, Rembrandt probably had little depth perception, which might have actually been an asset, since artists have to depict a three-dimensional world on a flat canvas, Livingstone said.

Livingstone and another Harvard neurobiologist, Bevil R. Conway, who is also an artist, wrote about their observations in a letter in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

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“My hunch is because Rembrandt had one eye that consistently deviated, that he probably did have poor vision in that eye. But you can’t tell that without testing,” she said.

An artistic advantage?
Livingstone, who has written a book on vision and art, said other artists such as Pablo Picasso, Winslow Homer and Frank Stella had misaligned eyes. That can be detected from photos, but for the Dutch master, his 17th century self-portraits are the only source, she said.

“At least you can say it was not a disadvantage, because some very famous, very talented artists” had misaligned eyes, she said.

In normal vision, the brain combines the images from two eyes to help form a 3-D picture. In lazy eye, one eye is weaker and the brain begins ignoring the poorer eye. Today, the disorder is treated in children with a patch, eye drops, glasses or surgery.

Rembrandt did scores of self-portraits before he died in 1669. Livingstone and Conway looked at a catalog of Rembrandt’s self-portraits and determined that both eyes could be seen clearly enough in 36 paintings or etchings to estimate the position of the pupil. In all but one, the eye that deviates is consistent.

While it looks like one eye deviates in the paintings and the other deviates in the etchings, that is because prints are the reverse of what is etched on a metal plate, they noted.

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