Remy Dean
Remy Dean
Jul 18 · 6 min read

500 years ago Leonardo (di ser Piero) da Vinci left us the enigmatic painting known as ‘Mona Lisa’ or ‘La Gioconda’ (1503–1519). It’s now the most famous painting in the world, but is it really that great?

Well, yes…

Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa for fifteen years or more and died in its presence. The King of France acquired the painting and it remained in the royal collection, hanging first at the Palace of Fontainebleau and then Versailles until the people’s revolution overthrew the monarchy in 1792 and made the painting a state owned, public art treasure — to become the centrepiece of the Louvre collection.

It may not be to your taste, but it embodies many technical innovations that had not been seen before, though have been used by nearly all portrait painters since. It also has an enigma surrounding it and lots of entertaining stories and speculation. It has become more than a historically important work of art, being elevated to the status of cultural icon, a ‘household name’.

When it was first shown to the public, many people thought that some magic had been used in its making, that somehow a real woman had been captured in oils, her very soul animating the picture… This was due to some very clever effects that Leonardo had discovered and incorporated into the work.

As you look at the Mona Lisa, a couple of things become apparent. She is looking at you. Wherever you move, her gaze follows.Also, she seems to move! Her shoulders appear to relax and her face changes its expression. The famous ‘Mona Lisa smile’ was definitely there, now as you look it seems to dissolve. You realise that she is not actually smiling, but maybe about to. Her expression goes through several changes, one moment she looks as if she is about to laugh, the next she is getting bored, then there is a little seductive, knowing smile upon those lips… It is as if she is responding to the presence of the viewer.

Magic? Perhaps.

The effects are all the results of clever painting developed from a scientific understanding of the ways in which we see and respond to each other. The eyes follow the viewer simply because they are looking straight out of the canvas and therefore will appear to be looking back at the viewer whatever angle they are observed from.

The changing expression is a little cleverer. Leonardo worked out that we, as humans, are very quick to recognise each other and also to interpret the mood of another. Almost in an instant we know if our friend is relaxed or troubled, happy or sad. Through observation and many study sketches, he discovered that there were six main points that we key into in order to recognise individuals. They are the corners of the eyes, the edges of the nostrils and the sides of the mouth where the lips meet. These six points on the face change their relation to each other to express our mood. The obvious expressions of frown and smile make a big difference to these measurements. More subtle moods are expressed in an ever-changing array of slight differences.

Nowadays, these subtle changes are called ‘micro-expressions’ and prove to be invaluable to psychologists in assessing patients and in police interviewing techniques. The six eye-nose-mouth key points are at the core of state-of-the-art facial recognition software used in the airports and stations of today.

Knowing this, Leonardo painted these parts of Mona Lisa’s face indistinctly. He subtly smudged them using a technique that would become known as sfumato — which is Italian for ‘smokey’. So when we look at her face, our brains instinctively key into these six features, but cannot discern them accurately. We cannot tell, for sure, what her expression is. So our interpretation of her mood is affected by a subjective point of view — by our own moods and reactions.

There is another visual trick that gives an illusion of movement. The horizon of the landscape does not quite line up behind the figure. It is very slightly skewed, whilst her shoulders are painted level. Again, Leonardo knew that our brains would struggle with this conflicting visual information. We know that the horizon should line up, so we read it as level. This then causes us to interpret the shoulders as being on a slant, which they are not. As our brain corrects this it creates an illusion of movement as if the figure shuffles a little bit in its frame.

These techniques were introduced here by Leonardo De Vinci, obviously resulting from extended experimentation and the many changes he made during the painting process over fifteen years. They were so stunningly effective that nearly all great portrait painters from this point onwards employed them, particularly the use of sfumato. These innovations were the initial reasons why the painting garnered so much fame and attention, though the fame was to grow further yet.

The mystery surrounding the subject has helped the enigma. Just who was this lady of Giaconda? It is thought that the painting was started when a merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, commissioned Leonardo to paint a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa, sometime after their wedding in 1495. There is no record of the commission ever being delivered. It is thought that Leonardo continued to work on the portrait, introducing his revolutionary techniques.

Another theory suggests that the portrait gradually metamorphosed into a self portrait. Some art historians have compared self portraits of Loenardo to the face of Mona Lisa and found that the eye-nose-mouth key points line up very closely. Could this be Leonardo the transvestite? A more likely explanation is that, in order to continue the experimental development, he needed a model and his own face would have been the most easily available, and cheapest, for consistent visual reference.

The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 was headline news around the world as was its recovery two years later. It was reported missing by another artist who had gone to the Louvre in order to paint a study of it and found its hanging place empty. Apparently it had been stolen the day before, but visitors and guards had presumed it had been removed to be photographed or have some restoration work done. Later the empty frame was found discarded.

During the investigation, Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the most influential critics and cultural commentators in the history of French art was arrested as a suspect and held for five days of questioning before being released without charge. Eventually, the culprit revealed himself when he attempted to sell the most famous painting in the world to an Italian antiques dealer.

Vincenzo Peruggia, an ex-employee of the Louvre, had apparently stolen the Mona Lisa in an opportunistic crime when he had found himself alone in its presence, with no guards, cleaners or visitors in sight. After his arrest, he explained that his motive was to return the painting to its rightful home in Italy. The Mona Lisa, now with a tear in its canvas, was displayed in a short tour of Italian museums before eventually being returned to the Louvre in Paris for repair and continued display with improved security.

It is through news stories, media, postcards, posters, word of mouth, cultural references, imagination and the world wide web, that most people know of the Mona Lisa. Although thousands of people visit the Louvre in Paris to see the work, far more people know it through reproductions, prints and scans. Oddly, from its theft in 1911 until its return at the end of 1913, the Louvre reported a steady stream of visitors who came to look at the blank wall space it once occupied…

…accidentally, the Mona Lisa became the first work of Conceptual Art, existing as an idea, separate from the object of representation.

“Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?”

Nat King Cole

Originally published at


The Signifier : studies in ART & media

Remy Dean

Written by

Remy Dean

This + That + Other + Author + Artist + Lecturer [art, film & folklore] + Creative Consultant in Education +



The Signifier : studies in ART & media

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