Was Mona Lisa actually smiling? Researchers say no

“We here interpreted the Mona Lisa asymmetric smile as a none genuine smile, also thought to occur when the subject lies.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa might not have been really smiling when she was painted over 500 years ago.

A team of neuroscientists examined the famed work by Leonardo da Vinci and believe the subject in the painting was forced to smile. In a paper published in the journal Cortex, researchers at the University of Cincinnati say Mona Lisa’s smile from the early 16th-century portrait isn’t genuine because of its asymmetry.

“Our results indicate that happiness is expressed only on the left side. According to some influential theories of emotion neuropsychology, we here interpreted the Mona Lisa asymmetric smile as a none genuine smile, also thought to occur when the subject lies,” the authors said in the paper.

mona lisa
Leonardo da Vinci

The study had 32 people judge two chimeric images of both sides of Mona Lisa’s smile with six basic emotions. Ninety-three percent reported the left half of the painting’s smile resembled happiness while 35% said that her expression was neutral when looking at the right half.

“Considering 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 asymmetric smile is the manifestation of an ‘untrue enjoyment’ in spite of all the efforts that Leonardo’s jesters used to make in order to keep his models merry,” the paper said. “An alternative intriguing possibility, however, is that Leonardo already knew the true meaning of asymmetric smile more than three centuries before Duchenne’s reports and deliberately illustrated a smile expressing a ‘non-felt’ emotion.”

The painting has come under scrutiny earlier this year. New research in May claimed da Vinci suffered nerve damage in his right hand that may have impacted his skill set which caused the Mona Lisa to be unfinished. Other research has claimed that the painting was actually a self-portrait.


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Kyle Schnitzer|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at kschnitzer@theladders.com.