Look Up, See a Masterpiece

New research finds paintings are judged as aesthetically superior if they are hung above eye level.
By Tom Jacobs ,

We've all had the experience: You're strolling around an art museum, and one painting catches your eye. Intrigued, and then mesmerized, you think to yourself, "Now that's a masterpiece!"

Many intangibles go into that judgment, of course, but new research suggests it is partially inspired by one easily measured variable: the painting's placement on the wall.

The study presents evidence that a work of art is held in higher regard if it is hung above, rather than below, eye level.

"Scale and height can increase aesthetic worth," write Angelika Seidel and Jesse Prinz of the City University of New York. "These findings suggest that aesthetic value is associated with largeness, with highness, and with (the artist's) fame."

Their research is grounded in the writing of several 19th-century thinkers, including Moses Mendelssohn. These philosophers argued that things that are large in scope and/or are best viewed by looking upward often inspire awe. Think Mount Everest, or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

In the study, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Seidel and Prinz conducted five experiments to test this theory. One of them featured 77 undergraduates, each of whom looked at a high-resolution, 20- by 30-inch reproduction of a notable painting, Wassily Kandisky's Sky Blue.

They were randomly assigned to view the work at eye level (five feet above the floor at the base), above eye level (six feet), or below it (four feet). They then judged the work on a series of criteria, noting the extent to which they found it interesting, considered it inspiring, and felt it inspired awe.

The results: Those who looked up at the work "rated the painting most positively, while participants who looked down gave the lowest aesthetic appraisals," the researchers report. "Eye-level presentations received judgments in between."

In another experiment, 42 undergraduates were assigned to (virtually) mount two paintings onto a gallery wall. Half were informed that the works were by great artists, while the others were told they were by students. In both cases, they recommended the painting be placed higher on the wall if they believed it was the work of a master.

Gazing toward the sky is a common metaphor for a positive feeling; consider the phrase "things are looking up."

While the reasons for this aren't clear, the results may reflect embodied cognition—the notion that physical sensations unconsciously influence our perceptions. The researchers note that gazing toward the sky is a common metaphor for a positive feeling; consider the phrase "things are looking up."

"Feeling happy is experientially related to upright posture," they add, "and thus things that make us happy may be metaphorically linked to higher elevation."

Other experiments conducted as part of the study—again using college students as participants—found that "works by master artists are believed to be large." When a painting was described as being the product of a great artist, "it was judged as physically larger and closer than when presented as a fake."

One possible reason for this is that "awe makes people feel smaller," the researchers write. If you're in the presence of a masterpiece, it makes you feel insignificant by comparison. So a painting that is identified as the work of a master feels big.

Interestingly, the reverse may also be true: In still another experiment, the same painting was judged as aesthetically superior if the reproduction was larger.

"Historically speaking," the researchers conclude, "the relationship between great magnitudes and magnificence has been a dominant theme in the history of art." In the words of Edmund Burke, "Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime."

So if you're feeling bored the next time you're in a museum, find a work that requires you to crane your neck. The brilliance of that Bruegel may suddenly seem like a no-brainer.

Join the Conversation