Mona Lisa smile interpretation has been a prime debate among art historians and scholars for centuries, since DaVinci first put his painting to canvas so many years ago. Theories abound and tests have been run, but still today people wonder why it was that such a simple curl of the lips could be so expressive.
The Original Theories
For many years, when asked “Why is Mona Lisa smiling?” many art historians were given to offering their own outlandish theories on the smile. It appears differently to everyone that views it and for that reason has been the source of much speculation. Largely, it was thought early on that her smile was supposed to be cloying, to draw the observer closer into observing her and her surroundings. Whether she was happy or just being ironic was always a source of much argument though, as outlined in the original biography by Vasari and his description of the smile.
Freud and the Mother Theory
Always prone to his own augmented theories on the nature of art and literature, Sigmund Freud proffered that the smile was a representation of Leonardo’s attraction to his mother. For him, “Why is the Mona Lisa smiling” was less a question and more of a psychological twist on things. Using his own Oedipus Complex theory, Freud built on the theory that the painting might be a representation of DaVinci or his mother instead of Lisa Gherardini.
This theory is further expanded in more recent books that suggest the painting might be a portrait of his mother and that the smile might be a knowing smile of sorts. Others have postulated that the smile might be similarly secretive regarding an affair DaVinci might have had with another of his possible patrons.
The Smile Itself
To best understand why everyone is so intrigued by this enigmatic smile, it’s important to know that the smile is incredibly unique as a visual stimulus. The nature of the smile, painted in Sfumato, forces the eye to adjust to it according to how you perceive it. Different angles, different people, and different focal points create different effects when viewing the painting. An Art Professor from Harvard, Margaret Livingstone outlined her theory that the smile can only be seen from a peripheral angle, usually when staring into the eyes. Other scientists, such as Christopher Tyler from Smith-Kettlewell Institute theorized that the smile is actually an example of random noise in human vision.
Regardless of the nature of the smile, it definitely appears different to different people and has a habit of extending or retracting according to who views her. The carefully painted corners of her mouth blend so seamlessly upward as to combine with the rest of her face and facilitate a perfect example of Sfumato and not just the blurring of the lines in the painting, but of the lines in our perception.
So, Why Was the Mona Lisa Smiling?
Recent science has taken many leaps and with it the development of some incredibly apt emotional recognition software has helped scientists begin the process of analyzing art’s great mysteries, including the Mona Lisa’s smile. In 2005, a team of scientists from the University of Amsterdam tried their hands at discerning exactly what the Mona Lisa’s smile means. Their software eventually came up with results that described the smile as 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, 2% angry, and less than 1% neutral. According to their research, the smile is definitely a meaningful expression and most likely is a happy one.
The science is of course new though and offers only the most cursory of examples as to the actual make up of the world’s most famous piece of art and the question of why the Mona Lisa is smiling.