The Power of the Gaze: How Artists Evoke Emotion Through the Eyes

painting of a black woman gazing down and away from the viewer



What is it about art that intrigues a viewer and keeps his or her attention? Is it the colors? The medium? The brushstrokes? Is it that the subject is beautiful or enigmatic? Inevitably, all of those elements draw the viewer in, but what holds a person’s attention? In many cases, the gaze is what pulls in and grips the viewer. The subject’s eyes are what makes the viewer feel something.


The gaze in portraiture has been studied and discussed extensively. The way that the artist chooses to capture the gaze can dramatically change how a viewer perceives the work and the person depicted in the portrait. Imagine, for example, if Leonardo da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa gazing off to the side, away from the viewer. Would she still be as well-known and as captivating four centuries later?  


Choosing where the subject looks is a powerful way for an artist to shape the public’s interpretation of a piece. Artists also use the gaze to deliver a message about the subject. Will the subject look at the viewer softly, with intensity, or not at all? And what does that say about the subject, the group, or the era that he or she represents? In this article, we’ll examine the impact of the gaze and how it affects the viewer of the piece.


Oscillation of The Gaze


Ultimately, artists have control over their subject’s gaze. However, there is a clear pattern of what has been en vogue for different generations of artists. There are clear periods when a cohort of artists depict their subjects with a direct, penetrating gaze.


Other times, artists capture the essence of their time and the culture by painting subjects with demure or shy looks, eyes directed away from the painter. Society’s opinion of groups of people and the overarching morals of the era impact how artists paint their subjects.


The Scientific Impact of The Gaze


Recently, researchers in the Czech Republic studied the neuronal and behavioral responses of viewers to paintings where the subject looks directly at the public. The researchers found that people spent more time observing and studying portraits in which the subject looked directly at them.


What is it about the gaze that captures observers?


In their study, the researchers discovered that when looking at a painting with a direct gaze, the viewer’s brains would activate similarly to when a person is being observed by another living person. The power of the gaze in portraiture is so strong that it can affect humans as deeply as if the subject of the portrait were actually staring back at them.


painting of a middle-aged woman looking directly at the viewer



The Power of The Gaze


Portraits are intimate. As viewers, we can feel as if we’re intruding on a moment between the artist and subject, or between the subject and the recipient of the painting. But what if that’s the point? Philip Hensher of The Guardian asserts that, in some cases, intrusion into the intimate may be the exact purpose of a piece.


What if the artist is using the gaze to draw you into a moment or scene in which you would not otherwise participate? What if the entire purpose of the painting is to envelop the viewer in an intimacy that would not normally be possible?


The joy of interpreting a painting is trying to imagine what the subject’s expression means and for whom it was intended. The detective work of taking in a painting could be the single most captivating thing about portraiture. It may be the reason why, for so long, humans have tried to capture our own likeness or the likeness of others. We’re captivated by one another and the way in which others live their lives.


Portraiture has a captivating, beautiful way of letting the viewer in on intimate moments through the subject’s gaze. One of the most intriguing aspects of the gaze is its circular nature. When the artist and the subject are locked in a perpetual stare, the viewer begins to wonder who was really observing whom?


painting of young girl’s silhouette as she gazes off to the side of the room



Art Should Make You Feel Something


No matter the direction of the gaze or the expression behind it, art makes you feel something, which is the entire purpose, isn’t it? No matter where the subject of a portrait directs his or her gaze, the expression captures something innately human and relatable, which might just be the artist’s express purpose.                                                                                                             

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