That Mona Lisa Smile

Thousands of tourists file past Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the “Mona Lisa,” in the Louvre museum in Paris every day. Aside from the fact that this is a masterful artwork, people are also fascinated by the enigmatic facial expression on the face of the painting’s subject. Is she smiling? Or is she smirking or frowning? Science may now have provided us with an answer to this centuries-old question.

According to a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, the woman in the painting is smiling.

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To arrive at this conclusion, researchers at Germany’s University of Freiburg conducted a series of experiments on people who were looking at the painting. The subjects were first shown a set of black and white photos of the painting. One of the photos was of the original, and the other eight had been digitally manipulated to make the “Mona Lisa” look happier or sadder. These photos were shown in random order to the study participants 30 times, and they were then asked to rate whether the model was happy or sad. The original was described as happy 97 percent of the time.

In the second experiment, the subjects were also shown nine photos of the painting, but all eight of the manipulated images were made to frown in this version of the test. The study participants still rated the original painting as happy, but the manipulated versions were believed to be even more sad than before.

Whether this definitively answers the question of Mona Lisa’s true facial expression remains to be seen. To accept the results of this experiment as the final answer would be to decree that majority public opinion corresponds with Leonardo da Vinci’s true intent. In reality, we will probably never know whether da Vinci wanted us to see a smile or a frown on his model’s face. In fact, this ambiguity may have been exactly what the artist intended to convey.

The results of the experiment may show more about how our brains work than it reveals about the thoughts behind Mona Lisa’s eyes. According to one of the study’s authors, it actually shows that our brains are biased to see positive facial expressions. Also, since the study subjects saw a greater degree of sadness when more frowning images were presented, it shows that our perception of mood is not absolute and can adapt based on the range of emotions we see.

Unless someone discovers definitive historical proof of da Vinci’s intent, the debate over the famous lady’s smile will likely continue.

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