That mysterious smile

Even after five centuries of her creation, the enigma of Mona Lisa’s expression continues to endure, writes B.N. Goswamy

"This is what portraiture is about: an effort to stop time." — David Rosand

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

There have been many spoofs on Mona Lisa’s smile
There have been many spoofs on Mona Lisa’s smile

HERS is easily the most famous face in the history of painting, and among those that care about art, there must be very few who have not burnt incense at her altar at some time or the other. But this lady — call her by any name: La Gioconda, Mona Lisa, La Joconde — does not make it easy to get to know her. She will soon turn 500 — the Victorian aesthete and critic Walter Pater even described her as being "as old as the rocks among which she sits" — but she still turns heads, still beckons. At the same time, she keeps to herself most of the time, as many have discovered.

Her mysterious smile has become a by-word; there are conflicting theories about who she really was; she went into obscurity behind the layers of grime and varnish for years, and was even stolen once, only to re-emerge and reign again. Clearly she is an icon: of art, and in a way of the whole western world.

The trouble with icons, however, is that they are constantly under siege. Many would like to whittle them to size; all kinds of theories, not always complimentary, would be floated about them; attempts would be made to find in them some hidden but fatal flaw.

In the case of Mona Lisa, it began slowly, questions being raised by serious researchers about who she really was in life: the wife of a Florentine business man whom Leonardo had befriended? The rich and capricious Isabella d’Este in disguise? Or some courtesan, like one of those dangerous beauties that French literature so celebrates? Whatever anyone believed in, she was raised to mythical status in the 19th century when Europe was completely obsessed with the Italian Renaissance, in general, and Leonardo in particular.

Theophile Gautier, the famous novelist and art critic, wrote in the book on her inscrutability — "this sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously"; this "divinely ironic" creature whose gaze hints at "unknown pleasures" and Jules Michelet said, "she attracts me, revolts me, consumes me; I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake". Countless others — among them some of the most celebrated names of the 20th century — referred to the "secrets" that the lady in the painting was not willing to reveal.

Freud thought that her famous half-smile was a recovered memory of Leonardo’s mother; Oscar Wilde remarked, in his characteristically ironic manner, that "the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing"; Forster invested one of his characters with a touch of the Gioconda mystery: "he detected in her a wonderful reticence; she was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things she will not tell us"; T.S. Eliot referred to Hamlet as "the Mona Lisa of literature". The myth had overtaken the work.

It was the theft in 1911 of the Mona Lisa, and its eventual recovery, however, which put the final seal upon its celebrity status. Suddenly, as Donald Sassoon, who wrote Mona Lisa: the History of the World’s Most Famous Painting, says, there were slews of articles, commemorative postcards, ballads, cabaret-revues, and silent films. But also, inevitably perhaps, spoofs.

Marcel Duchamp, with the avowed aim of mocking "high art", put a small beard and a moustache on the face of Mona Lisa in a reproduction, and published it under an impish, bawdy title; the illustrator Bataille showed her smoking a pipe; painters like Andy Warhol turned her into a pop-icon by multiplying her image; singer Bob Dylan used her as grist to his mill of lyrics ("But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues/ You can tell by the way she smiles").

She appeared on the cover of the Time Magazine, but dressed in the uniform of a soldier of communist China’s armies, for the story inside was about Europe reaching out to China. The lady is, and continues to be, everywhere.

At the same time, the intriguing smile on Mona Lisa’s face — "now you see it, now you don’t" — also continues to stimulate research in unexpected quarters.

There is the Harvard neuroscientist, Dr Margaret Livingstone, who explains why Mona Lisa’s smile comes and goes, in terms of how the human visual system is designed, and not because the expression is ambiguous.

She speaks of two distinct regions for seeing the world that the human eye has: a central area called the fovea, and a peripheral area surrounding the fovea. It gets a bit complicated at this point, but she says it is all a matter of where one focuses: her eyes or her mouth. For it is peripheral vision that picks an expression up. And so on.

As I said at the beginning, the lady does not make it easy to get to know her. And she never seems to give up.