Mona Lisa's Secret Revealed

Dina Q Goldin


11/01/2002 draft
published in the
Brown University Faculty Bulletin, Dec. 2002



Mona Lisa's smile permeates our popular culture. While tabloids discuss the upcoming Julia Roberts film, "Mona Lisa smile", the radio croons a popular song:


            Like the smile on Mona Lisa --

            Baby, everybody sees 'er


Postcards abound with her visage. The serious press is no exception; recently, the Wall Street Journal's weekend section described some wine's flavor as akin to Mona Lisa's smile. But what is it that makes the smile of La Gioconda, as the Europeans call her, so special? The absence of a definitive answer to this question in our popular culture is as striking as the ubiquity of references to the smile itself.


I have to admit I personally never saw anything special in the Mona Lisa, though I was always disconcerted by my lack of appreciation for something supposedly so great. Even more disquieting was my inability to find a convincing explanation that would change my mind and make me understand why I should stop being such a boor and learn to appreciate that painting. Perhaps I did not dig deep enough, but I argued that if there were indeed a simple and convincing explanation for the genius of Mona Lisa, should it not have surfaced by now, somewhere within my reach?


As a researcher, I decided to take the matter into my own hands. If anyone could reveal to me the Mona Lisa's secret, I reasoned, it would be Mona Lisa herself. But despite that song, one cannot really see 'er without going abroad. So during a trip to Paris, at a time of the day when a typical tourist would not be visiting museums, I found myself face-to-face with the original painting of the Mona Lisa, asking her to explain her secret to me. With no one else around to disturb our conversation, I cleared my mind of all preconceptions and waited for her answer. In this essay, I share what I discovered through my interaction with her. I hope to be forgiven for adopting a discursive approach; I feel it best suited for my purposes.


We are all familiar with art that manages to freeze motion. Runners captured with their leg muscles tense from straining to complete their next step forward seem to move in front of our eyes, as our brain involuntarily completes that motion on their behalf. This is because we are subconsciously aware that the runner's stance, as captured by the artist, cannot be stable -- the muscles of a stationary runner merely pretending to be running would not look the same. Rather than a static pose, the runner's body is a frozen instance in a dynamic continuum of poses.


The same can be said about the motion of the face. There are more muscles in the face than in any other part of the body, to capture all the fine emotions that we are capable of projecting. The part of the brain that decodes these projections back into emotions is also a very complex and well-developed organ. In principle, facial muscles can also be captured in mid-motion. Though it is very difficult, this is what da Vinci accomplished with Mona Lisa -- her facial muscles reflect a dynamic face in motion, not one of someone statically holding a half-smile.


This distinction is very fine, and perhaps does not come across on reproductions, certainly not on postcards and other knick-knacks that often bear Mona Lisa's likeness. However, when left alone face-to-face with the original portrait in the Louvre, our mind free to discover what it may, we quickly notice that our brain is aware of the dynamic nature of Mona Lisa's smile. Her face seems to be moving. Just as with the runner, we involuntarily complete that movement for her, seeing her half-smile bloom into a full smile in front of our eyes. It's almost as if she were a video rather than a picture.


The effect is similar to one with the runner in motion, but also very different. Whereas the runner's sprint is directed towards some location unknown to us, Mona Lisa is facing us directly. As we watch her bloom into a smile, we cannot help but feel that it is our presence that is causing her to smile, and we cannot help feeling a positive connection with the woman.


But wait -- we are suddenly aware of another, negative side of our connection to La Gioconda. Is it possible that, rather than breaking out into a smile, her face is undergoing the opposite motion, losing the traces of a full smile that she had a moment earlier? Indeed, unlike the runner's step, which can only explode in the forward direction, Mona Lisa's expression can represent a frozen instance of either direction of motion -- into a full smile, or out of it. Will her face be beaming in another second, or will it lose all traces of the smile? Suddenly we start wondering if perhaps it is the second interpretation that is correct.


The picture offers no answer. We find our mind flip-flopping, just as in the famous special effect of silhouette-and-vase: is it a white silhouette on a black background or a black vase on a white background? Either interpretation is equally likely, leaving us in a restless state of switching back and forth.


But the expression on Mona Lisa's face has an emotional aspect to it that the vase lacks: it is a direct reflection of her feeling towards us as the object of her gaze. Is she happy to see us, or is our presence making her sad? Are we her friend or her foe? The same face, yet two totally different and equally likely interpretations -- leaving our emotions in a complex and ever-changing quandary.


Though we cannot figure out what Mona Lisa is feeling, and hence what we are feeling towards her, there is definitely one feeling that our encounter with her engenders: that this is no ordinary painting. An ordinary painting cannot evoke in us such a complexity and dynamicity of emotions. No wonder this painting is considered so great…


After having discovered all this in the space of a short meeting with La Gioconda, I set out to learn more about her creator, Leonardo da Vinci. What I learned has cemented my conviction that my answer is correct. Leonardo's three life-long interests have been in art, anatomy, and motion. His accomplishments in each of these areas -- arts, sciences, and engineering -- earned him the reputation of a Renaissance man. Nowhere is this triumvirate of da Vinci's passions clearer than in his study of the human body in motion.


Unlike other artists of his time, who focused on external appearances, and anatomists, who focused on internal structures, da Vinci strove to do both. Da Vinci’s biographers agree that his ability to unify his talents from the three different areas is unsurpassed to this day. Beneath the skin of da Vinci's subjects are muscles and bones depicted with astonishing accuracy, even when in motion. The man was a genius, uniquely qualified to capture the mesmerizing effect of Mona Lisa's smile. Perhaps someday definitive research will confirm this secret of her smile. But my conversation with La Gioconda was enough to convince me.


© Dina Q Goldin, Ph.D., 2002.

All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced, in part or in whole, without this copyright notice.


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