The most famous smile of all time is a small masterpiece painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), of a young Florentine (Italy) woman, Mona Lisa. There has been endless debate as to whether she is actually smiling. Let's apply what we know about body language rules and determine how the young woman is feeling about sitting for hours while Leonardo painted her portrait. (When you think about it, how long do you think anyone could hold a real smile?)
Looking at the painting's right side it is instantly evident that she has definite upturned lips for a smile. Leonardo even made her cheek muscle a little tensioned with the slightly highlighted skin on top and shadowed below her cheek. This muscle looks a little thick in her cheek as it pulls her lips up. A definite gentle smile is here.
But her eye on this right side does not show the signs usually associated with a real smile. A real smile has "laughter lines" at the outer corner of the eyes where the skin crinkles up. The muscles involved can not be easily controlled consciously and usually activate only with a real smile. These muscles also affect the eyelids and cause them to tense up with a real smile. In her case, the lower eyelid does not have the same thickness and tension as her other eye. Therefore, this eye is very relaxed, and there is no smile evident in this eye.
Overall, this right side of her face indicates her mouth is smiling but her eye is not part of it. This is a gentle "polite smile" we all can turn on and off at will.
Study her mouth and eyes on the picture's left side. The body language indications are reversed. Her lips do not have a smiling up-turn, and her face is relaxed around the mouth and cheek, indicating no smile in her mouth area.
However, we can see that this eye hints of the tension associated with a true smile. The lower eyelid has a slight thickening and upward pull indicated by some shadow under the lower lid. Also, the upper lid outer edge appears pulled slightly up and out where the skin crinkles up in a true smile and laugh. The eye's outside corner is hidden in shadow plus there is paint unevenness. Therefore, we can not determine if there are the normal "laughter lines" at the outer edge of her eye, as in a real smile. There could be laugh lines, but we can't tell for sure. All these hint at a "smiling eye". Such a situation with a smiling eye but not a smiling mouth would be abnormal. This undoubtedly contributes to an uneasy feeling of mystery and bewilderment when one looks at this painting.
The body language indicators that we instinctually look for to understand how a person feels about us are conflicting in this face. Her eye on the left side of the painting has slightly increased muscle tension in those eye muscles normally associated with smiling and laughing. Also, a dilated (opened) pupil indicates interest and excitement and this pupil appears slightly more open than the other eye. However, her mouth on this left side is not showing an upturn for a smile. A smiling eye without the mouth involved is a backward way for the face to express pleasure and happiness.
On her opposite side (right side of painting), her eye is totally relaxed and not smiling, yet her mouth on this side is upturned in a gentle smile. This would be called a "polite smile", at best. It is no wonder we are confused when looking at this painting.
Some have said Leonardo was a genius to create such an enigma. There is no doubt of his great skill as an artist, but there may be another reason why this young woman looks so mysterious to us. Her face does not match our unconscious template for a person either smiling or not smiling. Different parts of her face are sending different body language messages!
It is easy to understand how this could happen if Leonardo painted different parts of her face at different times. Her mood very likely varied over time. Unlike a snapshot camera that captures the whole face image at a specific time, a portrait painting is made over time. Sometimes over several days. Her left eye may be her Monday eye, but her right eye may show her Tuesday mood. Her right mouth side possibly is for Wednesday. And maybe Leonardo painted her left mouth last, and that gentle smile was for Thursday when he finished his masterpiece!
© Copyright 2005, revised 2009, 2015 by Lawrence Rodrigues, M.S., Director: EastWest Institute for Self-Understanding.
All rights reserved worldwide.