Language and Art: Mona Lisa's Smile
Leo Segedin   |   February 13, 2008 |   Print this essay

This essay is about words, in the same way that an art history lecture is about paintings. It is about what people have said they see in the Mona Lisa. Although understanding of a painting is not the same as seeing it, words do affect our vision. We optimistically hope that words we read will not only explain the meaning of paintings, but that they will also help us learn how to see them. But art words are notoriously vague and, if Alice, in Through the Looking-glass, can ask, "How can you make words mean so many different things?", we can also ask: how can words make paintings mean so many different things? And, even more to our point, how can words make paintings look so different? The problem is that much of the literature about art is often so obscure that it is hard to know what to we are supposed to think or see. If the words of the post-modernists are famous for their incomprehensibility, the nebulous language of other writers, especially those who wrote during the 19th and early 20th centuries, can be equally bewildering. Their words are not only vague, but different writers seem to use them to describe the same paintings as if they were different works of art. A painting can appear to change before our eyes as we try to visualize the incongruous descriptions of what these writers tell us is there to be seen.


Perhaps the greatest example of such transforming vision is that of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The painting is in bad shape, the color is mostly gone; it has been over painted at least three times; it is dirty and has a sort of greenish glaze. How close it is to what Leonardo actually painted is a matter of professional conjecture. Even her identity has been questioned. Not only has she been identified as being a portrait of at least 10 different women; she's also said to be his lover, both male and female, his mother, Caterina, a boy and even his daughter. Most recently, the painting was described as a self portrait. And yet, it is said to be a masterpiece which has stood the test of time. At present, it is probably the most famous painting in the world. It has been reproduced and written about more than any other painting. It is now exhibited in a special room in the Louvre, in a temperature and humidity controlled box imbedded in concrete, behind 2 sheets of triple laminated, bullet proof glass. In front of it, during the day, are crowds of tourists, their photo flashes reflecting in the glass, in spite of a permanent guard's admonitions. The 'real' Mona Lisa is, therefore, for all practical purposes, impossible to see. Yet, in 2006, over 8.6 million people came to see her and contemplate her 'enigmatic' smile, most accepting on faith that everyone has always seen and admired the same, unique expression. They couldn't be more wrong.

The expression on Mona's face has always fascinated commentators. In recent years, scientific explanations have been published, most describing it as a sign of her deteriorating physical or medical condition. A dentist in Italy said that her smile was caused by a toothache. In London, it was determined that she was deaf, that she looked that way because she was trying so hard to listen to Leonardo. She's pregnant or she's just given birth. In 1959, Kenneth O'Keefe wrote in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences that she was pregnant. He diagnosed this by detecting an enlarged thyroid indicated by the 'puffy neck'. In 1989, Kedal Adour, an American specialist, diagnosed a facial paralysis called Bell's palsy. Prof. Jean-Jacques Comtet said that her posture indicated that she was hemiplegic or spastic. Joseph E Borkowski said that she had lost her front teeth, indicated by scar on her lip not unlike those caused by blunt force. She also has syphilis, high cholesterol and is in mourning. According to the results of a computer analysis of her expression, Mona was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, and 2% angry.

There are also technical, perceptual explanations. The enigmatic smile is caused by Leonardo's use of sfumato (the hazy, soft focus effect caused by fuzzy edges), which confuses the receptors in the eyes. It is also a result of peripheral vision or of light refraction or of the random noise of the human visual system. Take your pick.


Mona Lisa was not originally described as having any of these qualities. Here is the first important and for 300 years the most influential commentary about the painting, by the biographer, Giorgio Vasari, printed in 1550, 31 years after Leonardo's death:

Who so ever shall desire to see how far art can imitate nature, may do so to perfection in this head, wherein every peculiarity that could be fully reproduced. The eyes have that lustrous brightness and moisture which is seen in life, and around them are those pale, red, and slightly livid circles, also proper to nature, with the lashes, which can only be copied as they are with the greatest difficulty; the eyebrows also are represented with the closest exactitude, where fuller and more thinly set, with the separate hairs delineated as they issue from the skin, every turn being followed, and all the pores exhibited in a manner that could not be more natural than it is: the nose, with its beautiful and delicately roseate nostrils, might easily believed to be alive; the mouth, admirable in its outline, has the lips uniting the rose-tints of their color with that of the fact, in the utmost perfection, and the carnation of the cheek does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood; he who looks earnestly at the pit of the throat cannot but believe that he sees the beating of the pulses, and it may be truly said that this work is painted in a manner well calculated to make the boldest master tremble, and astonishes all who behold it. É.In this portrait of Leonardo'sÉ there is so pleasing an expression, and a smile so sweet, that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human, and it has ever been esteemed a wonderful work, since life itself could exhibit no other appearance.

Vasari describes how realistic the portrait is, how natural and lifelike. What makes it divine is its intense realism. He describes intimate surface details and glowing flesh colors. He even imagines throat pulses. Because what he says he sees is the literal appearance of the subject, it is possible to visualize Mona Lisa from his description.

Also, Vasari does not describe an enigmatic smile. Mona's expression is pleasing; her smile is divinely sweet, but it is not enigmatic. Smiles similar to Mona's appear in other Leonardo's paintings, on pre-classical Greek sculpture and on some of the sculptured angels on Gothic cathedrals. Apparently such smiles were considered fashionable at this time. We can assume that Mona was a lady of fashion. This is advice to women from a book on style by Agnolo Firenzuolo from 1541:
From time to time, to close the mouth at the right corner with a suave and nimble movement, and to open it at the left as if you are smiling secretlyÉ not in an artificial manner, but as though unconsciously Ð this is not an affectation, if it is done in moderation and in a restrained and graceful manner and accompanied by innocent coquetry and by certain movements of the eyesÉ
Furthermore, Mona Lisa has no eyebrows, eye lashes or color in cheeks, lips, nostrils, and has a receding hairline. Such details may have faded or been retouched, but according to some historians, Mona plucked her eye brows and hairline, as did fashionable women in other parts of Europe. In several portraits, Queen Elizabeth I also has a receding hairline and does not appear to have eyebrows or lashes. (Although an engineer, Pascal Cotte, using special digital scans says he detected a partial eyebrow in the under painting, this is questionable.)

It is apparent that Vasari never saw the painting. For most of its 500 year history, it was in private collections. Painted between 1503 and 1506, it ended up in France's Royal collection sometime after 1525. Until 1804, when it was permanently hung in the Louvre, it was not accessible to the public. Vasari's description must have been based on what he heard or assumed. It is his description of how a great Renaissance portrait should look; it is what he would expect to see.

However, although he never saw it, Vasari's description established its reputation as an outstanding example of realistic painting by a major Renaissance artist. For 300 years, this description created the reality of the Mona Lisa. In fact, because it was in private collections, there is almost no public mention of the painting during this period that could contradict it. Commentators following Vasari assumed that he had seen the painting. Even the great art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, as late as 1939, in his seminal book on Leonardo, writes: "How exquisitely lovely the Mona Lisa must have been when Vasari saw her."


No one saw an enigmatic smile on Mona's lips until the early 19th century when the Romantics said she had one. Before then, according to the philosopher, Franz Boas, women were considered "tremulous, frail, deceitful, without discretion, gentle, needing good company, ruinous, inconstant, lachrymose, lovely, etc", but never enigmatic. They became enigmatic when Romantic writers discovered that women had private, but psychologically provocative minds and wrote effusively about how profoundly challenging this newly discovered feminine inscrutability was to men. Up until then, although the painting had a reputation as a beautiful work of art, Mona had had no public. As novelists and poets popularized this modern Mona and with easy public access to the Louvre, she became a celebrity, a cause celebre.

Even before she became enigmatic, she had to be emancipated. She had to be set free from the narrow stereotype of a traditional, European woman. The first published reference to Mona I could find that deviated from Vasari's realistic description was by the poet and historian, Edgar Quinet, in 1848:
The smile of the Mona Lisa, is it not again the same half ironic smile of the human soul that parades in peace as it looks upon a world liberated from human terror? I cannot see this young woman without thinking that she hears about her the happy melody of the poems of Pulci and Ariosto.
In this description, Mona is a happy, liberated, sophisticated young woman enjoying intellectual and artistic pursuits.

But in 1861, Charles Clement, a former deputy keeper at the Musee Napoleon, discovered a more disquieting quality. He wrote:
The seduction and enchantment of Mona Lisa has survived for over 300 years. Thousands of men, of all agesÉhave been enflamed by these limpid and burning eyes. They have listened to words of deception from these perfidious lips. They have carried this poisoned dart into their hearts and taken it to the four corners of the worldÉLovers, poets, dreamers, go and die at her feet.
The historian, Jules Michelet, felt Mona's impact even more personally. For him, she created an overwhelming dilemma. He wrote that:
(she) attracts me, revolts me, consumes me, I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake.
In fact, a French artist, Luc Maspero, threw himself out of the 4th floor window of his Paris hotel, leaving a farewell note that said, "For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die."

Mona has certainly lost her happy, youthful innocence. In 1863, the novelist, poet and art critic, Theophile Gautier expanded more fancifully, if less passionately, on this disturbing development. He wrote:
Leonardo retains the finesse of the Gothic period while animating it with a spirit entirely É the faces of Vinci seem to come from the upper spheres to be reflected in a glass or rather in a mirror of tarnished steel, where their image remains eternally fixed by a secret similar to that of the daguerreotype. We have seen these faces before, but not on this earth; in some previous existence perhaps, which they recall to us vaguely. How explain otherwise the strange, almost magic charm which the portrait of Mona Lisa has for even the least enthusiastic natures? Is it her beauty? Many faces by Raphael and other painters are more correct. She is no longer even young; her age must be that loved by Balzac, thirty years; through the subtle modeling we divine the beginnings of fatigue, and life's finger has left its imprint on this peachlike cheek. Her costume, because of the darkening of the pigments, has become almost that of a widow; a crepe falls with the hair along her face; but the expression, wise, deep, velvety, full of promise, attracts you irresistibly and intoxicates you, while the sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners, in violet shadows, mocks you with so much gentleness, grace, and superiority, that you feel suddenly intimidated, like a schoolboy before a duchess. The head with its violet shadows, seen through black gauze, arrests one's dreams as one leans on the museum railing before her, haunts one's memories like a symphonic theme. Beneath the form expressed, one feels a thought which is vague, infinite, inexpressible, like a musical idea. One is moved, troubled, images already seen pass before one's eyes, voices whose notes seem familiar whisper languorous secrets in one's ears, repressed desires, hopes which drive one to despair stir painfully in the shadow shot with sunbeams; and you discover that your melancholy arises from the fact that La Jocconde three hundred years ago greeted your avowal of love with the same mocking smile which she retains even today on her lips.
For Gautier, the painting is no longer valued because it is a 'correct' representation; other portraits are more correct; Mona is now an expression of a potent, exotic psychology. Surface details and lifelike qualities have disappeared. The painting is barely a description of anything in the outer world. Her appearance only induces troubling associations. Her smile is no longer sweet and divine. She is fatigued and wise; her smile is mocking, sinuous, serpentine. These, obviously, are entirely male perceptions. She is disturbing to men, provoking suppressed desires. Mona has become a femme fatale. I could find absolutely no information about how women saw the painting.

In this same vein, the French critic and historian, Hippolyte Taine, found the famous smile "doubting, licentious, Epicurean, deliciously tender, ardent, sad," and the novelist, poet and art critic, Arsene Houssaye discussed her "charm, provocative and ineffable, cruel and divine, sybilline and voluptuous." As late as 1879, Charles Blanc and Paul Manta wrote about the "the proud serenity and restrained provocation of this face whose smile, at certain moments, seems satanic and still magnetizes us by its long and voluptuous glances."

Probably the most famous example of purple prose about Mona, giving her a less personal, but incredibly expansive, cultural emphasis, is by the English author, Walter Pater, in his influential book, The Renaissance, in 1873.
The presence that thus rose so strangely besides the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment besides one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubles by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed. All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and molded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Ages with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secret of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one: and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
It is almost impossible to visualize the appearance of the Mona Lisa from Pater's reverie. Like Gautier, it is really about what Mona is doing to the mind of the viewer, but the experience is no longer vague and inexpressible or sexually disturbing. It consists almost entirely of Pater's historical, mythological, and symbolic associations.

A few years later, another transformation of Mona occurs. In 1877, the English poet and biographer, John Addington Symonds, in his history of the Renaissance, The Fine Arts Ð Renaissance in Italy, wrote:
When an old man, he left 'Mona Lisa' on the easel, not quite finished, the portrait of a subtle shadowy, uncertain smile. This smile, this enigmatic revelation of a movement in the soul, this seductive ripple on the surface of the human personality, was to Lionardo a symbol of the secret of the world, an image of the universal mystery. It haunted him all through his life, and innumerable were the attempts he made to render by external form the magic of this fugitive and evanescent charm.
Although the smile remains important in this description, it's meaning changes again. It is no longer significant as a provocation to the male viewer. The smile now reflects the private feelings and ambitions of the artist; it reveals the mind and behavior of Leonardo.

By the beginning of the 20th century, this way of thinking is pushed to its limit. Psychoanalytical conjectures, based on pre-conceived, fanciful notions about how an artist's mind works, infect the words of commentators. In such theories, the painting and the viewer have all but disappeared. Not only has the vision of the artist, but art itself, becomes irrelevant. In 1916, Sigmund Freud wrote:
In the manner of all ungratified mothers, she thus took her little son in place of her husband, and robbed him of part of his virility by the too early maturing of his eroticismÉwhen in the prime of his life, Leonardo re-encountered that blissful and ecstatic smile as it had once encircled his mother's mouth in caressing, he had long been under the ban of an inhibition forbidding him ever again to desire such tenderness from women's lips.
The enigmatic smile is due to "mother fixationÉ (a) seduced image of a smiling mother repressed, but psychically potent." In psychoanalysis, therefore, all that remains of the artist is his subconscious. Sex has returned, but not as a provocation to the viewer. Mona has become a symptom of a psychologically disturbed man.

But Freud goes on, "Mona Lisa's smile lies on the cusp of good and evil, compassion and cruelty, seduction and innocence, the fleeting and the eternal". Thus, for Freud, Mona's smile even takes on moral and metaphysical dimensions.

And, with Freud's ex-disciple, Carl Jung, even the subconscious of the individual artist is gone. Mona's visual reality, her identity as a woman, has entirely disappeared. Jung's words create for us, not an image of Mona, but rather an inborn, universal realm of the "collective unconscious". According to Jung, there are 4 stages in the development of the psyche or anima in modern man, specifically the feminine, inner personality of the male. The fourth, rarely reached, is the highest level of wisdom, transcending the most holy and pure, and is represented by the Mona Lisa.


As we have seen, over a period of 500 years, the smile of the Mona Lisa has been called sweet, divine, perfidious, mocking, sinuous, serpentine, doubting, licentious, Epicurean, deliciously tender, ardent, sad, provocative, ineffable, cruel, sybilline voluptuous, uncertain, enigmatic, satanic, symptomatic, symbolic and more. Words have transformed her from a beautiful, friendly, erudite young lady into an older, experienced, mysterious, sexually threatening woman, soon to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. A few years later, Mona looses these responsibilities. She is first reduced to a symptom of sublimated childhood trauma and then elevated into a universal symbol of the highest attainable level of the human (male?) mind.

How can any one image provoke so many different, incongruous descriptions? For 300 years, Mona was known primarily by reputation. She first became popular during the 1840s, a time of radical social and political transformations. As traditional, conservative religion lost its intellectual authority, the values attributed to the Fine Arts became more secular; historical art, especially Renaissance art, was reinterpreted to meet these new requirements. In this transformation, Leonardo was converted into an objective, multi-tasking, modern Renaissance man whose work signified freedom from political and religious domination. Even though nothing definite is known about Leonardo's attitude toward religion or the Catholic Church (he made works of art with pagan and secular as well as Christian subject matter), Mona also became an anti-Church symbol which, at least in the eyes of the liberal public, replaced Catholic iconography. As intellectual culture became more concerned with personal psychology than religious beliefs, a secular subjectivity replaced religious spirituality among art devotees. From questions about what the painting represented to the feelings of Mona and the viewer, commentators, primarily Liberal writers making their reputations in the new mass media of books, newspapers and magazines, began to speculate about how Mona reflected Leonardo's inner life. For the public, Leonardo soon became a symbol of personal creativity, a Romanticized genius whose exceptional mind and work increasingly became a special challenge. Also, Vasari's questionable, but enthusiastic account, which was almost all that was known at the time about the painting and Leonardo, inspired imaginative assumptions about how his mind worked. In spite of their objective, scientific sounding character, the words of the psychoanalysts really describe Romantic fantasies much like those of the earlier 19th century writers and poets. In addition, the dark, faded condition of the painting created a fertile field for their wildest conjectures and such conjectures when published became attributes of Mona and Leonardo. The painting is a virtual personal and cultural Rorschach, a projection of the viewer's concerns. (There is even a website where anyone of any age can contribute their interpretations, e.g. she is his grandmother by an 11 year old, a street person by a 64 year old, etc.)


Today, the Mona Lisa is a cult object. It has become a secular icon with an aura matching that of any religious object, its significance being accepted as a matter of faith. Mona's smile stirs devoted art viewers in the same way as the Madonna's smile does believing Christians. As with any icon, the painting affects us by what we believe it to mean. In this sense, our beliefs lead us to see what we think is there. Unless some new documentary evidence is discovered, it will continue to attract interpretations, all of them equally unprovable, but all adding to its aura. Even its physical condition is irrelevant. Since it can't possibly look as Leonardo painted it, even if it deteriorates further, its fundamental significance won't change. As long as people need such icons, it will continue to provoke the fantasies of everyone who has fallen under its spell.

Find this content at: 

© 2008 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.