Great masterpieces explained: The secrets behind her smile

“The eye never knows the edge of anybody.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

It is because of the painting technique of Mona Lisa that her facial expressions are blurry. Therefore, when we look at her, we capture her expressions in various ways, as if she is a real woman.

Leonardo da Vinci studied how ratios of light and shade touch a human face according to the angle and its varied impact. This knowledge da Vinci combined with chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques (which were discussed last week) to create magic. Also, his thin layers of glazers add to this, together creating light to reflect through various pigments. This resulted in constant changes in her facial expressions, through optical and perceptual illusions.

Mona Lisa’s structure

The classic triangular-shaped structure of placing the centre human figures or figure drawing that was introduced during the renaissance was followed by da Vinci.

It is also worth noting that, standard renaissance portraits of women were rather firm and they do not stare at the viewer and never smiled. In contrast, Mona Lisa is directly looking at us, with a piercing stare and a mysterious smile. She seems to be relaxed and confident. In these traditional female portraits, we feel as if we are examining them, viewing them. But Mona Lisa is just the opposite. She is examining us and she is viewing us. This is another reason that she is the most extraordinary portrait ever made.

Her smile

Her smile which has captured millions is mysterious. Is it a happy smile or just a smirk? Or is it a stern smile?

If you keep looking at her eyes and around her face, you will feel as if her smile changes.

As studies reveal, da Vinci was an anatomist. He had conducted extensive studies on the human smile, studying how the muscles, and nerves move when smiling. His knowledge of the physical movement of the human smile and how emotions are transformed into a physical movement, gave birth to the smile that has captured the entire world; the Mona Lisa’s smile.

In 2000, Dr. Margret Livingston, a Harvard neuroscientist, discovered that Mona Lisa’s smile changes because of how the human visual system is designed, based on our central vision and peripheral vision.

When we look at a person’s face, our central vision is on the eyes. Then our peripheral vision which is less accurate is on the mouth. In Mona Lisa’s case, when our central vision is on her eyes, our peripheral vision is on her mouth. As this vision is not interested in specific details, the eye picks up the shadows on her cheekbones. This is where art meets science. When the eye is doing all this, the sfumato and chiaroscuro methods work, making her appear to be smiling.

 When we focus our central vision on her mouth, the shadows are not seen, thus, we see her smile disappearing. It turns into a mere smirk.

Why is she dressed that way?

Usually, portraits of that time were elaborated. Yet Mona Lisa is simple and dull. Compared to other portraits of the time of noble women, Mona Lisa’s clothes do not represent the wealthy class.

Da Vinci wanted us not to be distracted by other details and focus only on her face; on Mona Lisa, but nothing else. We are lost in her strange stare and the smile that has captured the world.

Beneath Mona Lisa

Multi-spectral analysis in 2004 by art technician Pascal Cotte revealed that there is another figure beneath the Mona Lisa we know today.

Art historians believe that she had eyebrows and eyelashes and over time with restoration and repainting, they gradually erased and scans reveal that the figure beneath her had eyebrows and eyelashes.

Scans show that Mona Lisa has charcoal marks on her which da Vinci used to copy from the sketch. As he painted and did changes to his painting, his student too did the same changes to his copy.

Was he obsessed with her?

In 2004, when Cotte scanned the Mona Lisa and discovered another figure beneath her, new theories came to life. One interesting theory is that the Mona Lisa beneath our beloved Mona Lisa is the real portrait of Florence’s beauty da Vinci started to paint in 1503.

A mystery adds to this now. If da Vinci painted the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, as his request, why didn’t da Vinci give it to him? Instead, he continued to paint it for 16 years, until his death. He took it with him to Paris.

Why was this? And why did da Vinci paint another Mona Lisa on top of the original Mona Lisa?

As Cotte says the original Mona Lisa is slightly turned away and her eyebrows are also visible in the scan. Following these unanswered questions, some art historians and researchers suggest that da Vinci painted another woman on top of the original portrait of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife. They also suggest that the drape-like shawl on her left shoulder is uncommon for that era’s fashion and represents a Greek goddess’ drape. Thus, making the Mona Lisa we see today a symbol of a divine, pious woman or an idealized woman.

Is this true?

If so, why did he do it? And what made him not give the finished portrait to Francesco del Giocondo?

Mona Lisa’s mystery continues.

Prado Mona Lisa

Gone unnoticed for centuries, the Prado Mona Lisa (the copy painted by an apprentice at da Vinci’s studio) was restored in 2012. Art historians believe that it was created simultaneously in the same studio under da Vinci’s supervision. Yet, the copy is pretty ordinary.

However, art historians believe that this copy, as it is preserved in an excellent state, the original Mona Lisa must have looked a lot like that.

Before we end, we must say that Mona Lisa enchanted Europe’s greatest emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Seeing her, he was mesmerised. He took her with him and kept her in his private bedroom for years until she was finally returned to the Louver.

In 1854 her first photograph was taken. During the later 19th century, Mona Lisa rose to the level of a global celebrity.

The many mysteries surrounding Mona Lisa still continue. It is the epitome of true art and the creation of genius. Mona Lisa is the result of Arts and Science. It is about philosophy, human psychology, anatomy, geology and many more; especially of modern science that was forbidden by the church.

There are a number of 16th-century copies of the Mona Lisa and many speculations around them. And many unanswered questions still remain. Yet, her smile continues to enchant us.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchi

The post Great masterpieces explained: The secrets behind her smile appeared first on Ceylon Today.