The spatial composition of human portraits obeys historically changing cultural norms. We show that it is also affected by cognitive factors that cause greater spontaneous attention to what is in front rather in the back of an agent. Scenes with more space in front of a directed object are both more often produced and judged as more aesthetically pleasant. This leads to the prediction that, in profile-oriented human portraits, compositions with more space in front of depicted agents (a “forward bias”) should be over-represented. By analyzing a large dataset (total N of 1,831 paintings by 582 unique identified European painters from the 15th to the 20th century), we found evidence of this forward bias: Painters tended to put more free space in front of, rather than behind, the sitters. Additionally, we found evidence that this forward bias became stronger when cultural norms of spatial composition favoring centering became less stringent.