Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Gombrich and 'Pictures That Follow with Their Eyes'

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Gombrich and 'Pictures That Follow with Their Eyes'

Article excerpt

The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts which Ernst Gombrich gave in Washington in 1956 included his observations on the illusion that a portrait's gaze seems to follow the observer as the observer's viewpoint changes.1 Four years later these lectures concerning 'the psychology of pictorial representation', together with various other of Gombrich's contributions to the subject, formed the basis for his seminal work Art and Illusion.2 In this work he began to grapple with understanding this gaze-following illusion in the overall context of the perspectival changes in a picture seen from different viewpoints. Thus, under discussion here are objects which 'appear to point out of the picture toward the observer', contrasting with 'the properties of the three-dimensional space depicted within the picture' which have occupied many students of linear perspective ever since the Renaissance,3 and Gombrich was to take on the challenge of explaining both the geometrical and the perceptual issues which lie behind the illusion.

Sometimes colloquially termed the Mona Lisa effect, 'Pictures that follow with their eyes'4 had been a phenomenon known for millennia, and Gombrich cited both Pliny5 and Lucian6 as classical sources. But how is the illusion explained? In Art and Illusion Gombrich posed the question, to which he responded but scarcely fully explained:

But do we not all feel that certain portraits look at us? We are familiar with the guide in a castle or country house who shows the awe-struck visitors that one of the pictures on the wall will follow them with its eyes. Whether they want to or not, they endow it with a life of its own. Propagandists and advertisers have exploited this reaction to reinforce our natural tendency to endow an image with a 'presence': Alfred Leete's famous recruiting poster of 1914 gave every passerby the feeling of being addressed by Lord Kitchener in person.7

Gombrich reproduced Leete's famous poster [fig. 1) and continued with further questions: 'Are these magic beliefs? Do we really think the image on the wall comes to life? The question may allow no more of a clear-cut answer than does any such question connected with symbolism'. Later in Art and Illusion Gombrich returned to the subject and to Leete's poster:

.. .we will assume that an eye looks at us, or a gun points at us, unless we have good evidence to the contrary. If the picture does not supply this contrary evidence and our projective tests fail to find it, we will succumb to the illusion. There are geometrical reasons why the eye, or the muzzle of the gun, will fail to respond to our movement test. A real gun when seen at an increasing angle would show less and less of the muzzle. The painted round of the muzzle threateningly fails to do so-the imagination supplies the rest. The same is true of the eyes.. .8

How 'the imagination' allows the eyes, or perhaps more strictly the eyes' gaze,1 to 'supply the rest' and follow the observer is not clarified further, although in the Notes referring to 'ancient and modern explanations of the illusion',9 Gombrich stated 'The correct explanation of the illusion is already given by Ptolemy in his Optics, Bk II, 133',10 whom he then quoted:

It is also assumed that the image of a face painted on panels follows the gaze of [moving] viewers to some extent even though there is no motion in the image itself, and the reason is that the true direction of the painted face's gaze is perceived by means only of the stationary disposition of the visual cone that strikes the painted face. The visual faculty does not recognize this, but the gaze remains fixed solely along the visual axis, because the parts themselves of the face are seen by means of corresponding visual rays. Thus, as the observer moves away, he supposes that the image's gaze follows his.11

For more 'recent' explanations, Gombrich referred to the paper 'The Apparent Direction of Eyes in Painting', published in 182412 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London by William Hyde Wollaston, chemist, physicist and physician, and sometime President of the Royal Society. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.