Now, myth of Mona Lisa’s mystery gaze debunked

Berlin: The ‘Mona Lisa Effect’ — the impression that the eyes of a person in a portrait are following the viewer — ironically is not seen in the Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous painting, scientists say. “People are very good at gauging whether or not they are being looked at by others. Perceptual psychology demonstrated this in the 1960s,” said Gernot Horstmann, of Bielefeld University.

“People can feel like they’re being looked at from both photographs and paintings — if the person portrayed looks straight ahead out of the image, that is, at a gaze angle of 0 degrees,” said Horstmann, one of the authors of the study. “With a slightly sideward glance, you may still feel as if you were being looked at. This was perceived as if the portrayed person were looking at your ear, and corresponds to about 5 degrees from a normal viewing distance.” said Horstmann.

“Curiously enough, we don’t have to stand right in front of the image in order to have the impression of being looked at — even if the person portrayed in the image looks straight ahead,” said Sebastian Loth, from Bielefeld University. “This impression emerges if we stand to the left or right and at different distances from the image. The robust sensation of ‘being looked at’ is precisely the Mona Lisa effect,” said Loth. But with the Mona Lisa, of all paintings, we didn’t get this impression,” said Loth.

Researchers gathered more than 2,000 assessments this way — and almost every single measurement indicated that the Mona gaze is not straight on but to the viewer’s right-hand side. “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,” said Horstmann.

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