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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482 Comments
  • rockey202
    rockey202Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 1:49 pm
    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
      goodvibesonly09Monday, July 13, 2020 at 9:03 am
      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!
      • animereina2020
        animereina2020Saturday, April 25, 2020 at 5:38 am
        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
        • rockey202
          rockey202Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 1:45 pm
          She is smiling and I know that for a fact
          • rockey202
            rockey202Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 1:45 pm
            A very cool fact
            • snakeale
              snakealeSaturday, September 5, 2020 at 5:30 am
              yea she is toataly smileing
          • goodvibesonly09
            goodvibesonly09Monday, July 13, 2020 at 9:04 am
            I dont think shes actually happy to see anyone just thats how the painter painted her right?
            • leiker1414
              leiker1414Friday, July 10, 2020 at 2:01 pm
              Idk great question.
              • leiker1414
                leiker1414Friday, July 10, 2020 at 2:02 pm
                I think she is smiling 😃.
              • lovetoread26
                lovetoread26Friday, May 1, 2020 at 8:40 am
                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.
              • lpsbrooklyn11
                lpsbrooklyn11Monday, March 23, 2020 at 8:14 pm
                Lol I never realized she really wasn t watching us lol
                • lpsbrooklyn11
                  lpsbrooklyn11Monday, March 23, 2020 at 7:59 pm
                  That's so cool!
                  • omg23716
                    omg23716Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 4:18 pm
                    Awesome
                    • omg23716
                      omg23716Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 4:18 pm
                      Cool
                      • bigmak21jr
                        bigmak21jrMonday, February 10, 2020 at 11:55 am
                        weird i didn't know
                        • vvthspacegirl
                          vvthspacegirlSunday, October 27, 2019 at 2:22 pm
                          anyone else think she is searching 4 leonardo
                          • lpsbrooklyn11
                            lpsbrooklyn11Monday, March 23, 2020 at 8:00 pm
                            Lol!
                            • bookstory14
                              bookstory14Sunday, March 22, 2020 at 5:50 am
                              Hahahaha! xD This comment is gold!!
                            • Sci ⚛girlSaturday, October 26, 2019 at 5:53 am
                              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!😊