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The Art and Science of Mona Lisa’s Smile

Leonardo da Vinci created the world’s most famous smile when he painted the Mona Lisa. It took him 16 years to complete the work. It is a painting of such singular genius that many of the techniques behind it have been lost to time, and are only now being rediscovered using a complex array of scientific techniques and historical investigations.

In its current issue on “The Science of Creativity,” The Atlantic Monthly highlights the tremendous innovations in science that made this painting unlike any other before or since.

Anatomy of a Smile

The Art and Science of Mona Lisa’s SmileDa Vinci was not just an outstanding painter, he was a master anatomist. Even while he was working on the painting during the day, he spent his nights in the morgue, dissecting corpses and exploring the complex configuration of muscles that moves the lips and cheeks to create the smile.

He was also a comparative anatomist, dissecting more than just human corpses to look at the differences between humans and other animals. He wrote in his anatomical notes, “The muscles which move the lips are more numerous in man than in any other animal.” It’s this complexity of muscles that allows us to make such equally complex facial expressions.

Among da Vinci’s discoveries is the insight that the smile can also impact the appearance of the eyes. Several eye muscles are critical in smiling, and when we smile, these can contribute to wrinkling around the eyes. This is why a non-surgical facelift has a rejuvenating effect that goes beyond the chin and mouth–the complex interactions with eye muscles can extend the impact further.  

Psychology of Mona Lisa’s Smile

But of course we can’t talk about her smile purely in anatomical and scientific terms. We have to consider why and how she smiled. Contemporaries of da Vinci tell that he employed many people to keep his model (now generally accepted as Lisa del Giocondo) smiling. There were musicians and jesters that constantly entertained her.

With this constant upkeep of entertainers, most modern people still wonder at why her smile was so slight and didn’t show any teeth. One explanation is that she actually had very bad teeth. This is possible. During the period when the painting was being created, upper-class people tended to have very bad teeth. They were rich enough to have access to sugar and other delicacies that could encourage tooth decay, but no one understood the science of dentistry enough to protect teeth. At best, people of this period wore dentures made of human teeth–often extracted from young, poor people and sometimes carrying deadly infections like syphilis. More often, they had no dentures–a century later Queen Elizabeth I would be stuffing cotton in her mouth to conceal just how few teeth she had left. She had lost so many that her speech was unclear. The question of Lisa del Giocondo’s oral health won’t be answered until we discover her remains–which is currently being investigated.

But more than her oral health, it was probably her culture that kept her from showing her teeth. In those days, only madmen, fools, and prostitutes smiled broadly in picture. Even Mona Lisa’s smile was considered to be quite a departure for people of the day.

Optics of Painting

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of da Vinci’s painting is the optical techniques he used to achieve its effects. Using repeated thin layers of glaze, da Vinci is able to create a sensation of depth to the painting that is more than just a trick of shading.

He also used the direction of his brush strokes to help create a more natural luster to the skin. He varied the direction of these strokes to create a more natural skin texture.

And his mastery of optics let him create a special trick when it comes to the smile. When you look directly at the smile, the contours and the shading create an effect which might not be a smile, exactly. But when your eyes move away from the smile, the unfocusing of your eye causes the smile to look more pronounced. In technical terms, this is because  “A clear smile is much more apparent in the low spatial frequency [blurrier] images than in the high spatial frequency image.” The practical effect is that Mona Lisa seems always to be smirking at you behind your back, but always has an innocent expression when you look at her directly, a delightfully mischievous effect.

Do You Want a Smile of Art and Science?

Although we cannot guarantee that you’ll ever have a smile as famous as the Mona Lisa, we can guarantee that if you have a smile makeover at Rochester Advanced Dentistry we will use the most advanced discoveries of art and science to ensure you get the smile of your dreams.

To learn more about the innovations in technique and technology that can give you the most beautiful smile of your life, please call (248) 923-4155  today for an appointment with a Detroit area cosmetic dentist.