Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

Art through the eyes of babes

The Clark Art Institute - Exhibition: "Van Gogh and Nature." Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890), The Sower, c. 17-28 June 1888. Oil on canvas, 64.2 x 80.3 cm. Kršller-MŸller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands -- 12vangogh -- 12ticketart 26ticketart
The Clark Art Institute/“Van Gogh and Nature” Exhibition
“The Sower (Sower with Setting Sun)” by Vincent van Gogh.

We lose many things in our childhood, including an almost instinctual way of looking at art.

A recent study from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam suggests that children and adults visually process Van Gogh paintings differently, perhaps because kids lack artistic know-how and life experience.

Scientists decided to forgo the usual lab experiments and brought study participants to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam instead. There, groups of adults and children ages 11 and 12 got to see the artwork — raised globs of oil paint and all. Using special eye-tracking glasses, scientists monitored each person’s eye movements as they stared at, say, the 1890 painting “View of Auvers.”


Here’s what they found: Children’s eyes tended to focus on “salient” aspects of the paintings, or parts where Van Gogh’s impressionistic brush strokes starkly contrasted in light or color.

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Adult eyes focused more on identifiable objects. That might explain why seven out of nine kids remained oblivious to the mysterious naked woman in “Tree Roots,” which certainly earned its fair share of recognition among us adults, who can generally identify blue, squiggly breasts.

“Adults seemed more influenced by their previous knowledge in general,” said Francesco Walker, part of the study and a cognitive psychologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Everyone knows a Van Gogh, basically, and in some way, that really does influence eye movement.”

Grown-ups use “top-down processing,” a goal-oriented way of seeing things that’s sort of like searching for a friend’s face in a crowd of people. Children, however, used “bottom-up” processing — akin to someone staring into a crowd, where their attention is then captured by a stranger’s bright red coat.

“It shows that, when you’re not as experienced, you’re driven by hard-wired ways of looking at the world,” said Helmut Leder, a professor of the psychology of aesthetics at the University of Vienna. “Adults are more attracted to the fact that these are sunflowers in a painting — whether they’re red or green dots or whatever, they don’t care.”


Therefore, one could say that adults have a richer way of seeing art. On the other hand, maybe Picasso had it right when it comes to vision. “Every child is an artist,” the painter said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.