Viewing van Goghs: Adults and children perceive paintings differently

Viewing van Goghs: Adults and children perceive paintings differently

Do people of different ages view paintings differently? Analyzing eye movements can indicate how individuals direct their attention to build an overall impression of a painting. Previous studies, conducted in artificial settings, have shown that children tend to be guided by visual stimuli – bottom-up processes – whereas adults are more influenced by their prior knowledge or beliefs – top-down factors – during perception.

To investigate eye movements in a museum setting, Francesco Walker from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and his colleagues tracked the eye movements of 12 adults and 12 children while they viewed five paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The paintings were new to the participants, whose gaze patterns were recorded both before and after hearing descriptions of the paintings. The researchers found that adults made an average of 63 fixations on the surface of the paintings during the 30-second viewing period, while children made an average of 53 fixations.

When viewing the paintings freely, the children focused first on the stand-out, ‘salient’ features of the paintings, indicating bottom-up processing. However, after hearing the painting descriptions, they paid attention to less noticeable features first, indicating that their new knowledge was influencing their attention in top-down processing. Adults appeared to focus initially on non-salient features both before and after hearing a description, suggesting that top-down processing was dominating their viewing processes throughout.

“This is the first study to compare eye movement behavior of children and adults in an actual museum setting,” says Francesco Walker. Analyses using larger samples could help further investigate how children and adults perceive art in this natural setting.

Reference: Walker F, Bucker B, Anderson NC, Schreij D, Theeuwes J (2017) Looking at paintings in the Vincent Van Gogh Museum: Eye movement patterns of children and adults. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0178912.

Image Credit: Francesco Walker et al (2017)


Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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