New York Tech professor Robert Gallagher


Study: 400-Year-Old Painting Offers Insights for Today’s Marketers

April 24, 2024

New research by Robert G. Alexander, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and counseling, finds that techniques used in a Baroque-era painting could help today’s marketers catch the attention of modern consumers.

Eye tracking, the practice of measuring and recording the movements and positions of a person’s eyes, offers valuable insight into how people perceive and interact with their environments. For example, understanding why consumers direct attention toward or away from an object allows marketers to create more engaging advertisements; it can also provide insight into how users engage with digital content and how platforms can be designed for a better user experience. Similarly, understanding eye movement patterns can help interior designers determine which environments are the most aesthetically pleasing.

Alexander’s latest study, published in the Journal of Vision, suggests that a 400-year-old painting leveraged valuable “attention-grabbing” techniques—and today’s marketers may want to take notice.

In 1628, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens recreated the well-known oil painting The Fall of Man, made famous 100 years earlier by the Italian painter Titian. However, Rubens took creative license in modifying several features of the painting, which depicts biblical characters Adam, Eve, and the serpent child in the Garden of Eden. Whereas Titian’s work depicted the serpent child and Adam looking at one another, Rubens shifted their gaze toward Eve. In addition, Rubens added a red parrot near the outside of Adam’s body and repositioned Adam's posture, among other changes. But how these updates changed the way viewers perceived Rubens’ work vs. Titian’s has remained unclear.


Titian’s painting (left column), Rubens’ painting (center column), and Rubens’ painting without parrot (right column) were viewed by the experiment participants. Middle row: The yellow line represents an individual participants scan paths for each of the three images. Bottom row: Overall gaze dynamics can be seen in the average heatmap for all participants across 45 seconds of viewing time. Both scan paths and heatmaps indicate an increased focus on Eve in the Rubens painting, particularly when the parrot was present.

Alexander and his research team have tracked eye movement to quantify where viewers direct their attention. Thirty-three participants were shown digital copies of both artworks, as well as a version of Rubens’ painting with the parrot digitally removed. Eye movements were recorded as participants gazed at the computer screen using a video-based eye tracker; scan paths and heat maps were used to determine where users directed their attention.

In general, eye movement patterns showed that participants focused more on Eve’s face in the Rubens painting, whereas attention was more broadly distributed in Titian’s work.

Then, using a subset of the experiment’s participants, the researchers “zeroed in” on the Rubens painting to determine whether the presence of the parrot played a role in shifting the focus toward Eve’s face. Participants were shown the Rubens painting and a version of the painting with the parrot digitally removed.

The data showed that less eye movement occurred when the parrot was present, but when the parrot was removed, eye movement increased and gaze was redirected to other areas of the artwork. This suggests that the addition of the parrot may have been a strategic decision on Rubens’ part, directing viewers to focus their gaze on Eve.

“While we may never know why Rubens wanted to direct attention toward Eve, our findings show that his critical deviations from Titian’s painting have a powerful effect on oculomotor behavior—techniques that today’s marketers and designers may find useful,” says Alexander. “From a psychological standpoint, it also goes to show you that how and where we focus our attention is not just determined by what we see, but also how others want us to see it.”