Researcher Steve DiPaola, who is also affiliated with Simon Fraser University, explains that Rembrandt captured the viewer’s attention by placing a sharper focus on a specific area – the left eye in the case of Self Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar – and he blurred edges to draw the viewer in (here, to the face).
For the study, published in the MIT arts and sciences journal Leonardo, Mr. DiPaola duplicated four Rembrandt portraits using models who dressed and posed like the subjects (such as Mr. DiPaola himself, here). The photos were rendered in the style of Rembrandt, closely matching all attributes. Then the photos were manipulated, changing certain details.
The study found that the Rembrandt-like portraits were the most successful: Eye-tracking determined that viewers fixated on the area in sharper focus more quickly and stayed longer, resulting in “calmer eye movements,” says Mr. DiPaola. And when participants were asked which work they preferred, the Rembrandt-like portraits came out on top.
The idea that artists use painting techniques to guide a viewer’s gaze is not new, but until now, the efficacy has not been scientifically proven. Nor has the practice been traced as far back as Rembrandt, who died in 1669.