There Is No Wrong Answer
For as long as I could remember, my mental image of the Mona Lisa consisted of Leonardo da Vinci’s subject seated in front of a black background. Her expression was just a smirk in the painting that resided in my head. But when I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre for the first time in 2018, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the face of Lisa Gherardini and solve the meaning behind her smile. Instead, I found myself drawn to behind her right shoulder.
The setting wasn’t monochromatic. There were shades of blue and green and brown in the background—stark contrasts to the dark garb on neighboring Lisa—where my mind previously assigned a blank void. This color palette then revealed itself to be mountains and a body of water peeking over her shoulder. There was even a sky if I looked further up the canvas.
Well, then. It turned out my recollection of da Vinci’s masterpiece had been wrong this whole time.
My faulty vision of the Mona Lisa was self-inflicted. From childhood until my belated enlightenment at the Louvre, my eyes fixated on Lisa’s enigmatic expression whenever I looked at an image of the painting in a history textbook or on Wikipedia. In allowing myself to get swept up in the debate over what emotions da Vinci depicted, I reduced the portrait to nothing more than a pair of eyes and a pair of lips.
All the while, a whole world hid in plain sight behind Lisa. As I stood in front of the portrait in the Louvre and the scope of my eyes expanded from Lisa to the entire frame, I absorbed the colorful landscape I missed out on for more than twenty years. The terrain that da Vinci added to this portrait resembled something more along my interpretation of the American frontier than the bustling city-states I associate with Renaissance Italy.
This is an image of my interpretation of the influence of film and modern buildings against the painting of Mona Lisa.
– Ilene Gold
I still couldn’t resist the strange expression on Lisa, though. After my initial viewing, I returned to the Mona Lisa three more times that day. Each time, I let the hoards of people clamoring for a selfie with the painting swallow me into the crowd and push me toward the front of the pack as they inched closer to their destination, replacing those people ahead of them who got their photos. With each visit, I hoped that I’d gain new insight into the portrait by taking a different vantage point or by staring at it for a longer period of time.
My original belief that Lisa was smirking now felt too strong of a descriptor for her expression. The smile—if that is the right word for it—is too subtle to be a smirk and, by my last stop, I concluded that her eyes didn’t convey any emotion to me.
Therefore, I now align with the argument that da Vinci gave Lisa a stoic expression. Her eyes and mouth suggest a sense of indifference, that she’s present for no reason other than to finish the portrait. But my interpretation of indifference could be perceived in countless ways by anyone else, even though we’re looking at the same thing.
That’s the beauty in the ambiguity of the Mona Lisa today. We have access to a bottomless well of information on our smartphones, which can pull up the answers to all our questions at high speeds thanks to advances in technology and Google. We have standardized procedures to aid us in completing bounded tasks—“to get the right answer” efficiently—at school and at work. However, the open-ended uncertainty associated with Lisa’s expression permits people to stretch their imaginations for all the possible emotions they think she could be projecting, sift through those options with whatever criteria they deem fit, and then arrive at their own conclusions about her.
Something that got lost in the clean solution sets I saw throughout my undergraduate education in engineering is how much of life is lived in a gray zone. After I finished college, I rediscovered the importance of abstract ideas and discussion by reading and looking at art for leisure. It’s why I now appreciate the variety of perspectives surrounding the Mona Lisa and the evolution of my own opinions on the painting. The Mona Lisa is an affirmation of the diversity of thought in humanity. For that, I’m glad we’ll never know what Lisa is feeling in the timeless moment captured by da Vinci.
Bryan Garcia is a structural engineer whose writing has been published in the matchday programs of English Premier League club Crystal Palace F.C., the Orlando Sentinel, and New York City web magazine Untapped Cities. He holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering and BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Florida.
Art: Kodachrome Mona Lisa, Ilene Gold