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Head Canting in Paintings: An Historical Study

Abstract

Head canting, a lateral shift of the head toward the shoulder axis, was examined in 1498 figures in the complete works of 11 painters from the XIV to the XX century: Martini, van Eyck Hubert and Jan, Holbein, Carracci, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Degas, Cèzanne, Klimt, and Modigliani. All figures (up to 9 in any one painting) that were not in complete profile and that were not depicted bowing or shifting their bodies were selected for analysis. Our analysis found a higher frequency (49%) of head canting in paintings than previously reported in naturalistic settings. Head canting was significantly higher in female figures than male figures. If a figure's head was facing laterally, head canting was more likely to be to the contralateral side. Head canting was lower in older figures than in children, youths, and adults. The highest level of head canting was seen in religious and mythological figures. Head canting was lower in figures of artists and professionals and virtually absent in depictions of nobles. Figures in pose were depicted with less head canting than those in natural settings. Head canting was lower in figures gazing toward the observer. Single-figure portraits head canted less than subjects in multiple-figure paintings. Author analysis revealed that head canting was pronounced in painters of religious subjects and in modern painters, whereas its degree was reduced in official portrait painters. These results are discussed in terms of dominance theory.

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Correspondence to Marco Costa.

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Costa, M., Menzani, M. & Bitti, P.E.R. Head Canting in Paintings: An Historical Study. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 25, 63–73 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006737224617

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  • head canting
  • portraits
  • dominance
  • gender differences
  • painting