Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile | Sunday Observer

Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile

11 October, 2020

For centuries, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Mona Lisa has beguiled art lovers who are unable to resist speculating on its origin and meaning. A French inventor once claimed to know the answer to her enigmatic smile. He referred to her missing eyebrows and lashes. Meanwhile, Pascal Cotte, a Parisian engineer, said his ultra-detailed digital scan of the painting confirmed that it was a 16th century portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife. According to him, the original painting had eyebrows and lashes intact. His megapixel scans revealed that her eyebrows and lashes had been obliterated during a restoration effort. However, he admitted that Leonardo was a genius to have done such a painting.

Pascal Cotte was really obsessed by the portrait of Mona Lisa. He used a highly developed camera to examine the portrait. His findings were rather startling. According to him, Leonardo changed his mind about the position of two fingers on Mona Lisa’s left hand. Her face was originally wider and the smile was expressive than that found on the painting. She was holding a blanket hidden from the view. The painting at the bullet-proof glass enclosure at the Louvre is saturated with heavy greens, yellows and browns as a result of age, varnish and restorations performed by later conservators. Finally, he reproduced a photograph of Mona Lisa with the light blues and brilliant whites. However, art critics and historians have raised doubts about his findings.

On August 21, 1911 the Mona Lisa portrait was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The thief had apparently spent the weekend in one of the museum’s closets. At the time, the security was minimal. The Mona Lisa painting was simply hanging on a wall. After the disappearance of the painting, security was strengthened. It was like closing the stable after the horse has bolted. The media coverage of the heist was at its height and the little known painting suddenly became a household name. The Paris Journal offered 50,000 Franks to anyone who returned the painting. Then the police received a tip from an art thief who pointed his finger at Pablo Picasso, a promising young artist.


Picasso had been living in Paris for well over ten years with a gaggle of Bohemians. Among them was a poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire whose former secretary was Honore – Joseph GeryPieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Pieret went to the Paris Journal’s office and claimed the reward. By that time, Pieret himself had stolen two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th centuries BCE and sold them to Picasso who used them to inspire his artistic talents. Pieret had also stolen a similar painting from the Louvre in 1911.

The police believed that the Mona Lisa painting would also be with Pieret or his gang. They also came to know who his friends were. Realising the great danger Picasso and his gang of friends faced, they packed the stolen sculptures and paintings into a big suitcase and ran towards the River Seine to dump it. After reaching the river bank, however, they changed their plan. On the following day, Guillaume Apollinaire visited the Paris Journal and handed over the stolen statues and paintings on condition of anonymity. The newspaper agreed to do so but the police stepped in.

The police detained Apollinaire and ordered Picasso to appear before a Magistrate. When the Magistrate asked Picasso whether he knew Apollinaire, he said, “I have never seen this man.” On hearing these words, Apollinaire’s facial expressions changed. The blood ebbed from his face. And Picasso felt ashamed. During the proceedings, Picasso wept like a child. However, the Magistrate discharged both men as there was no evidence to involve them with the disappearance of the Mona Lisa painting. Two years later, the police recovered the Mona Lisa painting from Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist, who had been working at the Louvre.


Computer experts have discovered among the many mysteries of the renowned portrait of Mona Lisa that Leonardo da Vinci originally painted her with beads around her neck and a distant mountain range to the left of her right eye. John Asmus of the University of California at San Diego confirmed that Leonardo himself painted over the necklace, but a later art restorer had removed the mountain range to make foregrounds more prominent. The highly advanced computer allowed Asmus to look through the layers of discoloured brown varnish and extensive ageing cracks to simulate the painting’s original appearance. Asmus says, “After more than 450 years of deterioration, the image of the lady is barely a soiled caricature of the original.”

Much has been written on Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati claim that Mona Lisa’s smile is “non-genuine” – and it is all down the smirk’s asymmetry. The researchers led by Dr Luca Marsili in an article published in the “Cortex” said, “Our results indicate that happiness is expressed only on the left side.”

In recent years, even psychologists have taken an interest in Mona Lisa’s smile. According to some influential theories of emotion neuropsychology, Mona Lisa’s asymmetric smile is a non-genuine smile which occurs when the subject lies.

In an extensive study, the researchers asked 42 people to judge which of the six basic emotions were expressed by two altered images of Mona Lisa’s smile – one mirror image of the left side and one of the right side.


According to the results, 92 percent of participants indicated that the left half of the smile displayed happiness, while none indicated that this was shown on the right side. Instead, 83 percent of the participants said the right side showed a neutral expression, 12 percent said it was disgust, and 5 percent said it was sadness.

Researchers said, a genuine smile, also known as a “Duchenne Smile” causes the eyes to contract. They said, “It is unlikely that a person who sits motionless for hours to be painted is able to constantly smile in genuine happiness. The simplest explanation is that the Mona Lisa’s asymmetric smile is the manifestation of an “untrue enjoyment” in spite of all the efforts that Leonardo’s jesters used to make to keep his models merry.

What is strange is that Leonardo had known the meaning of asymmetric smile more than three centuries before Duchenne’s reports. It is not clear whether he deliberately illustrated a smile expressing a “non-felt” emotion. According to some experts, Leonardo may have been hiding cryptic messages in his paintings. Whatever that may be, the Mona Lisa smile continues to attract our attention although the message it conveys remains elusive. In a way, it is another unsolved mystery.

Mona Lisa is a consummate example of two techniques – sfumato and chiaroscuro – of which Leonardo was one of the great masters. Sfumato is characterised by subtle almost infinitesimal transitions between colour areas, creating a delicately atmospheric haze or smoky effect; it is especially evident in the delicate gauzy robes worn by the sitter and in her enigmatic smile.

Chiaroscuro is the technique of modelling and defining forms through contrasts of the light and shadow, the sensitive hands of the sitter are portrayed with a luminous modulation of light and shade, while colour contrast is used only sparingly.

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