Does pictorial composition guide the eye? Investigating four centuries of last supper pictures

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  • Rosa Sancarlo
  • Jozsef Arato
  • Zoya Dare
  • Raphael Rosenberg

Within art literature, there is a centuries-old assumption that the eye follows the lines set out by the composition of a painting. However, recent empirical findings suggest that this may not be true. This study investigates beholders' saccadic eye movements while looking at fourteen paintings representing the scene of the Last Supper, and their perception of the compositions of those paintings. The experiment included three parts: 1) recording the eye movements of the participants looking at the paintings; 2) asking participants to draw the composition of the paintings; and 3) asking them to rate the amount of depth in the paintings. We developed a novel coefficient of similarity in order to quantify 1) the similarity between the saccades of different observers; 2) the similarity between the compositional drawings of different observers; and 3) the similarity between saccades and compositional drawings. For all of the tested paintings, we found a high, above-chance similarity between the saccades and between the compositional drawings. Additionally, for most of the paintings, we also found a high, above-chance similarity between compositional lines and saccades, both on a collective and on an individual level. Ultimately, our findings suggest that composition does influence visual perception.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7
JournalJournal of Eye Movement Research
Issue number2
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 21.08.2020

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