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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495 Comments
  • nitria
    nitria3 months
    WOW! I thought if you moved to her left a bit, then she WILL be looking at you!
    • playstationxmas
      I didn't even think of that! You are so smart!
    • marypopcorn
      marypopcorn4 months
      Also, did anyone else notice that the Mona Lisa is completely eyebrow-less? She has eyebrow ridges, but no actual eyebrows.
    • wolfy_blue
      wolfy_blue8 months
      I didnt even think of that
      • thesmessywriter
        wow this si really cool!
        • kurz
          kurz11 months
          Cool!!!
          • rockey202
            rockey202over 1 year
            Oh and I never even thought she was looking at us anyway I always thought her eyes were in the corner of her eye
            • goodvibesonly09
              goodvibesonly09over 1 year
              When they said the Mona Lisa is following you I thought it ment her eyes were ACTUALLY moving and following you! That would be so creepy!
            • animereina2021
              animereina2021over 1 year
              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
                marypopcorn4 months
                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
                  marypopcorn4 months
                  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
                    marypopcorn4 months
                    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
                      rockey202over 1 year
                      She is smiling and I know that for a fact
                      • wolfy_blue
                        wolfy_blue8 months
                        I honestly thought she wasnt smiling
                        • rockey202
                          rockey202over 1 year
                          A very cool fact
                          • snakeale
                            snakealeover 1 year
                            yea she is toataly smileing
                        • goodvibesonly09
                          goodvibesonly09over 1 year
                          I dont think shes actually happy to see anyone just thats how the painter painted her right?
                          • leiker1414
                            leiker1414over 1 year
                            Idk great question.
                            • leiker1414
                              leiker1414over 1 year
                              I think she is smiling 😃.
                            • lovetoread26
                              lovetoread26over 1 year
                              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.
                          • zbr0k3n_ang3l
                            zbr0k3n_ang3lover 1 year
                            Lol I never realized she really wasn t watching us lol
                            • zbr0k3n_ang3l
                              zbr0k3n_ang3lover 1 year
                              That's so cool!