Why is Mona Lisa’s smile legendary? Sometimes she’s smiling, sometimes she isn’t. I knew that, but I didn’t know that this was intentionally painted this way.
Leonardo da Vinci heavily researched anatomy by cutting open corpses in the morgue and taking detailed scientific notes. He broke down the anatomy behind the human eye. He noted in his studies on eyes that light rays do not come to a single point in the eye, but instead hit the entire area of the retina. That was the key to her smile. The smile comes and goes because of how the human visual system is designed not because the expression is ambiguous.
But how did he get it in the perfect position? Well, cameras weren’t invented yet, so he dissected more bodies and took notes analyzing the human mouth in great detail.
After all the research was complete, he jotted down the initial sketch of the perfect smile that would fool eyes for centuries to come.
Using this sketch, Leonardo pioneered painting techniques to tackle this feat. He used thin translucent layers of brushstrokes applied over years. He invented the painting technique sfumato to make sure there weren’t any lines visible to the naked eye. This allows us to look at a painting using depth of field—the way our eyes work. He invented the painting technique chiaroscuro where he contrasted shades of light and dark to create the illusions of a 3D form.
Another aspect of the Mona Lisa that was new for its time was her pose. Every painting up until that date took a lot of time, so the person being painted dressed in their nicest outfits, wore jewelry, held a straight face, and stiffly sat upright. On the other hand Mona Lisa is relaxed, you can sense that she is gently turning towards the viewer, and instead of a frown, she’s smirking. Mona Lisa was the first painting that looked like someone had a camera and simply snapped a shot of someone.
Now, direct your attention to the background scenery. Back then, paintings had the subject and the background in detailed focus. Instead, the background of the Mona Lisa fades into the distance—a lot more similar to how our eyes and cameras work.
We look at her skin, her pose, and the scenery now and it’s normal, but back then, it was groundbreaking.
Leonardo painted this at 60 years old, a few years before he passed away. This was the only painting he carried around with him along with his notebooks of research and inventions. When you’re looking at the Mona Lisa, you’re looking at more than just a portrait, you’re looking at the accumulated knowledge of a genius who blended art and science to create a magical work of art. It’s the end product of the greatest inquisitive mind in history.