A Perfect Circle

Article by Darren Rousar.

rembrandt-self-portrait-circlesRembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles.

If you’re reading this, you can clearly see. The question is, how clearly do you see? It’s an important question because although vision is a biological wonder, not everyone’s vision is equally comparable. For some, the most obvious issue is a lack of focus. But other issues are often less obvious. One possible tell is your ability to see a perfect circle.

Be aware that I am not an optometrist, ophthalmologist, or an optician. Therefore, nothing in this article should be taken as a diagnosis. I’m simply trying to help you assess how you see.

The Perfect Circle

You might think you know a perfect circle when you see one, but do you? Some people are unaware that their vision is distorted, especially when the distortion is slight. Most of the time the distortion is caused by an astigmatism, a condition in which your eye is not completely round.

Take a look at the circle represented below. It is a perfect circle – not a trick or an illusion. Does it look like one to you? What happens when you close one eye and look? How about when you switch eyes? Finally, how about when you step back aways?


If you have an astigmatism in one of your eyes the circle may look skewed or stretched in one direction. Part of it might even be a little blurry. Of course, this is not a definitive test and yet it has some relevance.

It is an important issue for representational artists because when you see in a distorted way you will represent that distortion on your paper or canvas. What’s more, unless the distortion is profound, the odds are that you’ll be unaware of it.

I’ve had students with the issue who did not know it until a few critiques led me to suggest they see an eye doctor. They did, in fact, have an astigmatism.

A Stretch

There are different distortions caused by an astigmatism, and one of them is a stretched image. The stretch can be on any axis and it results in seeing a circle as a slight oval.

To show you a few examples I had planned on digitally distorting some portrait paintings done by an old master or two. I chose Ingres because his painting The Grand Odalisque came to mind when I was thinking about visual distortion. Despite this article’s subject, I’ve no doubt the elongation of the figure in The Grand Odalisque was intentional.

ingres-the-grand-odalisqueIngres, The Grand Odalisque.

Nevertheless, when looking at some of his portraits I noticed a distortion that I think was unintentional. Take a look at the image below. It is a detail from Ingres portrait of Madame Rivière.

Which looks more natural to you? Number 1 or number 2?

ingres-madame-riviereOn the left is Ingres’ original. On the right is a digital correction.

Do you see the difference? How about when the two images are superimposed over each other, as shown below?


I found the same issue in Ingres’ Self Portrait at age 24. Below is the side-by-side comparison of just his head. Which looks more natural to you?

ingres-self-portraitOn the left is Ingres’ original. On the right is a digital correction.

And, below is the superimposed comparison.


Bear in mind that I’ve not done an exhaustive study of Ingres portraits so there’s no definitive conclusion as to Ingres having an astigmatism or not. Furthermore, it is possible that the shapes of both Madame Rivière and Ingres heads actually did look like the images as Ingres painted them.

Then again, though I cannot find perfect matches, other paintings and photographs of the sitters do not appear that way.

Too Tall or Too Wide

The problem can be subtle. It can also be hidden in the errors of drawing too tall or too wide. I, for example, invariably draw too large in all directions. If, on the other hand, my regular error was only side-to-side or top-to-bottom, I’d then assume an astigmatism.

Also exempted is intentional distortion, as was seen in Ingres’ The Grand Odalisque above. El Greco, for one, was known to elongate representations of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints in his paintings. His goal was to make those figures appear more holy than the norm. Among many others, Van Dyke, Thomas Lawrence, and Sargent routinely elongated their figures and portraits in the pursuit of a more elegant appearance.

What’s with Rembrandt’s Circles?

You might have seen Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles before and wondered about them. The reference is to a legend of the early Renaissance artist, Giotto, as told be Vasari. The story is summarized below.

Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man Giotto was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in St. Peter’s. When the courtier went into the workshop of Giotto he showed him the mind of the Pope and asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness.

Giotto immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.

Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, “Here is the drawing.” But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, “Am I to have no other drawing than this?”

“This is enough and too much,” replied Giotto, “send it and see if it will be understood.”

The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, when he sent the drawings from other artists to the Pope he also sent Giotto’s, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses.

When the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb, “You are rounder than the O of Giotto.”

If Giotto’s feat seems amazing (and it was), you might be interested in an earlier article, Squaring the Circle.

The Take Away

I hope this article gets you to have regular eye examinations. If you do then it has done its job. That’s true whether you think you have an astigmatism or not.

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