Story Behind Famous Painting: the Smile of Mona Lisa

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • What Is the Mona Lisa Smile?
  • New Research


Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait of Lisa Gherardini, more popularly known as the Mona Lisa, has been one of the most famous paintings in the whole world and consequently also became of the most-discussed work of art. The original painting is now owned by the government of France and it is displayed in the Louvre museum in Paris, France. For almost 500 years, people have been amazed by this painting because of Mona Lisa’s smile. Some people claim that they see her smiling, while others say the opposite. This phenomenon has become so prominent that the Italians even have a word to explain Mona Lisa’s smile, they call it ‘sfumato’, it is used to describe something blurry, ambiguous, that is up to the person’s interpretation and imagination.

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What Is the Mona Lisa Smile?

Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression, which looks both alluring and aloof, has given the painting its universal fame. The Mona Lisa painting has garnered numerous debates regarding her smile, people are either seeing her smile as a genuine one while the others claim that she is not smiling at all. This has intrigued many researchers and over the years it has become a popular subject in psychology, neuroscience, and human behavior. There have been numerous studies on it in the past, one of the most popular theories was developed by Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingston. She claims that in actuality, there is no concrete description of Mona Lisa’s expression because it comes and goes. Mona Lisa’s smile is caused by the human visual system and not because the expression is ambiguous, according to the New York Times. Dr. Livingston claims that the human eye and brain deal with different levels of contrast and illumination and when we look at a certain subject, it can change from time to time depending on from where we’re looking at it.

Apparently light plays a big part in the presence of the Mona Lisa smile, shadows suggest and enhance the curvature of a smile hence when the viewer’s gaze goes directly to Mona Lisa’s mouth, then the central vision does not see the shadows and they will never see the smile. However, if the viewer’s gaze goes directly to Mona Lisa’s eyes, they might see a glimpse of the smile. It all depends on the viewer’s focal point and the lighting of the area, according to her investigation. However, a more recent study that was published this month claims that Mona Lisa’s smile is actually ingenuine and her smile was either forced or fake.

New Research

A neurology research team from the University of Cincinnati recently published a study that claims that Mona Lisa’s smile is actually ingenuine. Their results indicate that the feeling of happiness was only portrayed on the left side of her face and according to theories of emotion neuropsychology, Mona Lisa’s asymmetric smile is not actually a genuine smile. According to Dr. Luca Marsili, the lead author of the research that was published in the journal Cortex and a professor in neurology and rehabilitation medicine at the UC College of Medicine, Mona Lisa’s smile is not actually a smile and the emotion that was illustrated is not of happiness or contentment. Dr. Marsili and his colleagues conducted an experiment that asked 42 participants to judge which of the six basic emotions were expressed by two chimeric images of the left and right sides of the Mona Lisa painting.

A chimeric image is the mirror image of a certain object or portrait, and in this case, they used one side of the smile. The researchers have found that 92% of the participants answered that the left half of the smile displayed happiness while the right side did not show any sign of happiness at all. 35 of them also said that the right side expressed a neutral facial expression and the rest of them said that it indicated disgust and sadness, as reported on Science Daily. Moreover, the researchers also claim that there is no upper face muscle activation in the Mona Lisa painting and this can be very telling since a genuine smile should cause the cheeks to raise and the muscles around the eyes to contract. Meanwhile, an asymmetric smile reflects a non-genuine emotion that usually occurs when a person lies or tries to hide their true emotion.

There are several explanations for Mona Lisa’s ingenuine smile; it can be because she has been sitting there motionless as Leonardo da Vinci was painting and it was difficult for her to continue genuinely smiling for a long period of time — or it can be something more intriguing, for instance, perhaps da Vinci already knew the true meaning of an asymmetric smile and he deliberately illustrated a smile expressing a non-felt or ingenuine emotion. Of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s true intentions can never be revealed now and we are only left to speculate the true meaning of the Mona Lisa’s smile.

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