Newsflash: The Mona Lisa Is Not Looking At You

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A new study indicates that contrary to previous beliefs the Mona Lisa is not looking directly at the viewer (Credit: CITEC/ Bielefeld University)

The eyes of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa have long been thought to follow viewers around the gallery of the Louvre Museum in Paris where it is exhibited, as well as those looking at photographs and reproductions of the famous painting. Now, researchers from Germany's Bielefeld University assert that while “The Mona Lisa Effect” – the impression that the eyes of the subject in a portrait are following the viewer – is real, it is not true for its namesake painting.

For their study, Dr. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth asked 24 volunteers to observe several high-resolution images of the masterpiece, each projected three times in random order on a computer screen, and use the provided ruler to indicate where Mona Lisa’s eyes were directed. To test if any individual features of the portrait influenced the viewer’s perception of her gaze, some photos featured her entire head, while others focused just on Mona Lisa’s famous eyes and nose. The orientation of each image was moved slightly, from right to left, to ensure participants did not instinctively enter the same number. To prevent a bias for an even number, the researchers periodically varied the distance of the ruler from the computer screen.

The study participants observed 15 different images of Mona Lisa to test if any particular feature influenced their perception of her gaze (Credit: Credit: CITEC/ Bielefeld University)

When Horstmann and Loth analyzed the over 2000 observations collected, they found that every one of them indicated that Mona Lisa’s eyes are not looking directly at the viewer. Instead, they are focused at something over his/her right shoulder. “The participants in our study had the impression that Mona Lisa's gaze was aimed to their right-hand side. More specifically, the gaze angle was 15.4-degrees on average," says Horstmann.

So why are so many people convinced the Mona Lisa is looking at them? Horstmann, who published the findings in the scientific journal i-Perception on January 7, 2019, believes it’s human nature to think that the subject of a famous painting is admiring them. “It illustrates the strong desire to be looked at and to be someone else’s center of attention,” he says, “to be relevant to someone, even if you don’t know the person at all.”

The researchers responsible for debunking the “Mona Lisa effect” (Credit: CITEC/ Bielefeld University)

While the Mona Lisa may not be projecting its namesake effect, Horstmann, an expert on eye movement and attention, says it does exist. Loth, who has observed the sensation on numerous occasions in his research with robots and avatars, agrees. "Curiously enough, we don't have to stand right in front of the image in order to have the impression of being looked at," he said. "This impression emerges if we stand to the left or right and at different distances from the image." The effect only starts to fade away as the angle between the viewer and the artwork increases.

The debunking of the widely-believed myth does lead to the question: if the Mona Lisa is not gazing and smiling at you, who is she so happy to see?

Resources: Smithsonian.com,phys.org,journals.sagepub.com

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498 Comments
  • animereina2021
    animereina2021over 2 years
    Who knew? I thought the Mona Lisa was staring the viewer, but if that's not the case, then who is she really happy to see? But here's the other question... Is she smiling or is she frowning? You can reply to this comment if you want to, not forcing ya. I just want those who are bored because of quarantine to actually start questioning and getting interested
    • marypopcorn
      marypopcornabout 1 year
      Wait, she might ACTUALLY be looking at you. Yeah, I know she's looking off to the right, but she is also turned to the side, so she might be looking at you from the corner of her eye. BOOM.
      • marypopcorn
        marypopcornabout 1 year
        OR, I have one MORE idea: A friend of hers, or a lover, came into the room and they are standing in front of her, to the right.
        • marypopcorn
          marypopcornabout 1 year
          I actually noticed that she is looking off to the right. I have 3 ideas. One is that, she is friends with the artist, and so she is looking at the artist. Two is that, the artist is wearing something ridiculous, and so she is looking and smiling at the artist's silly clothes. And three is that, something funny is going on in front of her, to the right, and she is smiling at that.
          • rockey202
            rockey202about 2 years
            She is smiling and I know that for a fact
          • goodvibesonly09
            goodvibesonly09about 2 years
            I dont think shes actually happy to see anyone just thats how the painter painted her right?
            • leiker1414
              leiker1414about 2 years
              Idk great question.
            • lovetoread26
              lovetoread26over 2 years
              Thank you for helping to entertain people! :) It's really fun. I think that she is smiling, but it's not much of a smile, more of a straight line.
          • lpsbrooklyn13
            lpsbrooklyn13over 2 years
            Lol I never realized she really wasn t watching us lol
            • lpsbrooklyn13
              lpsbrooklyn13over 2 years
              That's so cool!
              • omg23716
                omg23716over 2 years
                Awesome
                • omg23716
                  omg23716over 2 years
                  Cool
                  • bigmak21jr
                    bigmak21jrover 2 years
                    weird i didn't know
                    • vvthspacegirl
                      vvthspacegirlalmost 3 years
                      anyone else think she is searching 4 leonardo
                    • Sci ⚛girlalmost 3 years
                      I've always wanted to see the Mona Lisa. The only day Vinci I've seen is the one at the National Gallery. But now I know that when the time comes, she isn't looking at me!😊
                      • Hypheralmost 3 years
                        I think she is looking at invisible wario
                        • shelbygirls
                          shelbygirlsalmost 3 years
                          Ha if she’s not looking at u who is she lookin at