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Proc Biol Sci. Aug 7, 1999; 266(1428): 1517–1522.
PMCID: PMC1690171

Laterality of expression in portraiture: putting your best cheek forward.


Portraits, both photographic and painted, are often produced with more of one side of the face showing than the other. Typically, the left side of the face is overrepresented, with the head turned slightly to the sitter's right. This leftward bias is weaker for painted male portraits and non-existent for portraits of scientists from the Royal Society. What mechanism might account for this bias? Examination of portraits painted by left- and right-handers and of self-portraits suggests that the bias is not determined by a mechanical preference of the artist or by the viewer's aesthetics. The leftward bias seems to be determined by the sitters and their desire to display the left side of their face, which is controlled by the emotive, right cerebral hemisphere. When we asked people to portray as much emotion as possible when posing for a family portrait, they tended to present the left side of their face. When asked to pose as scientists and avoid portraying emotion, participants tended to present their right side. The motivation to portray emotion, or conceal it, might explain why portraits of males show a reduced leftward bias, and also why portraits of scientists from the Royal Society show no leftward bias.

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Selected References

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