Scientists Confirm: The Mona Lisa is Always Happy—And Sometimes Sad

Artwork: The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda). 1503-06. Oil on poplar wood. Courtesy of The Louvre/Wikimedia Commons.

The Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous portrait in the world, has captivated the public’s imagination for centuries. Painted in 1503-06 by the great Leonardo da Vinci, the portrait has mesmerized audiences with eyes that follow up wherever you go, and an expression of deep ambiguity that has begged the question, “Is she smiling?”

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Now, a team of scientists at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, have just released a study confirming that The Mona Lisa is happy. The study, published in Nature, details the process , which involved a group of 12 observers (5 men, 7 women, ages 20-3), who were shown 9 different grey-scale versions of famous painting. Each version had a slight moderation of the curvature of her mouth to show the full range of emotion, from happy to sad. Participants were asked to press a button indicating which emotion they perceived; the responses were then added up and analyzed accordingly.

The studied revealed that participants identified happy faces more quickly, and with a higher degree of certainty, suggesting an innate attraction towards positive facial expressions. In the second part of the study, when the original was shown with the sadder versions of the work, people adapted their response to the larger context of the environment. On the whole, participants felt that, when shown a full range of emotions, the Mona Lisa “is always happy, but only sometimes sad.”

Or to put it another way, she embodies the complexities of emotion within the female experience. Da Vinci marvelously put her expression right in the middle of a perceived binary, drawing attention to the fact that it is not either/or but both—at the same time. Thus, The Mona Lisa is responding to the context by which we are viewing her. A predisposition towards negativity will evoke a sense of sadness layered within, while she will respond to joy and pleasure just as well. If ever a painting was empathetic to its audience, it is this one.

Artwork: The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda). 1503-06. Oil on poplar wood. Courtesy of The Louvre/Wikimedia Commons.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.