Painted by the great Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa has come to be virtually priceless in our contemporary era, and crowds from all over the world file into Paris’ Louvre museum just to catch a glimpse of the small portrait in person.
It almost goes without saying that the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the world, but the enigmatic portrait of the woman with the elusive smile has tended to leave art historians with more questions than answers.
One particular mystery that has beguiled viewers is the Mona Lisa’s seeming lack of facial hair, urging them to ask: does the Mona Lisa have eyebrows?
Mona Lisa did originally include a pair of eyebrows. However, according to several contemporary studies and discoveries, the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows eroded over time as a result of repainting, natural wear and tear, and overcleaning.
Art buffs and scholars alike have argued about whether or not the Mona Lisa is a real person, how long it took da Vinci to complete his masterpiece, and whether or not her signature hint of a smile is indeed a smile at all. The answer to the question of whether or not the Mona Lisa has eyebrows requires us to dig below the surface of da Vinci’s celebrated portrait. This article will explore the various investigations that have embarked on the quest for the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows.
Eyebrow Shaving: A Renaissance Beauty Trend?
One of the first things viewers will notice upon seeing the Mona Lisa is that the woman staring out at them from within the frame of da Vinci’s painting does not have a single visual trace of eyebrows or eyelashes. Some scholars take this visual evidence as confirmation that the Mona Lisa was never meant to have eyebrows, and cite Renaissance beauty standards as the explanation for her hairless visage.
Researchers claim that it was customary for women to pluck out their eyebrow hairs during the Renaissance to adhere to the beauty standards of the era. A visual comparison of other female portraits during the Renaissance affirms that most women, particularly of the upper class, tended to style their eyebrows in thin, plucked crescent shapes arched above their eyes.
A preference for thin eyebrows paralleled another trend in female body hair: women similarly opted to shave their hairlines to create the appearance of a broad forehead. It was believed at the time that large foreheads were a sign of intelligence.
Eyebrows Located by a French Engineer
In 2007, a French engineer by the name of Pascal Cotte released evidence that debunked attempts to explain away the Mona Lisa’s absent eyebrows through appeals to Renaissance beauty standards. Pascal Cotte used ultra-high-resolution scans to reveal that the original Mona Lisa not only had eyebrows but eyelashes as well, and that years of repainting and excessive cleaning had obscured them from existence.
Cotte’s scans penetrated the painting’s surface to uncover the initial layers of underpainting and adjustments that da Vinci made underneath. His camera technology unearthed traces of the Mona Lisa’s left eyebrow, along with evidence that da Vinci made changes to the size of her face and smile.
Cotte’s findings also reveal that the artist adjusted the angle of two of the Mona Lisa’s fingers, and that the woman was at one point ornamented with various hair accessories and a blanket originally held in her hands. Through the crucial discoveries illuminated by his scans, Pascal Cotte provided hard evidence for the original presence of eyebrows on the Mona Lisa.
Confirmation from an Early Art Historian
As it turns out, Pascal Cotte wasn’t the first to call attention to the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows. The first scholar to describe the female sitter’s eyebrows was none other than Giorgio Vasari, the man credited with laying the foundations for art historical scholarship and documentation.
In Vasari’s 16th century text documenting the lives and artworks of the great Renaissance artists, the artist and writer gives a generous description of the Mona Lisa in which he makes reference to both her eyelashes and eyebrows.
Despite Vasari’s compelling description and the importance of his testimony as a scholar writing so chronologically close to the Renaissance painters he revered, more contemporary scholars question whether Vasari actually observed the Mona Lisa with his own eyes. Some believe that his description of the painting was based on a different version of the Mona Lisa, rather than da Vinci’s original. For this reason, Vasari’s description of the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows is not always taken as conclusive evidence on its own.
Seeing Double: The Discovery of a Second Mona Lisa
Another discovery offering compelling evidence for the Mona Lisa’s true appearance made waves in the art world in 2012, when the Prado Museum in Madrid revealed their finding of a second Mona Lisa painting. According to museum representatives, the Prado Museum launched the restoration of a portrait bearing a striking resemblance to the Mona Lisa.
After intensive cleaning and restoration, the museum’s conservators washed away the portrait’s blackened background to reveal a landscape almost identical to the Tuscan scene stretching out behind da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Infrared technological studies revealed that the underpainting of both the Prado’s Mona Lisa and da Vinci’s were also virtually the same, suggesting that the two works were likely completed simultaneously.
The studies orchestrated by the Prado Museum have led to the conclusion that their copy of the Mona Lisa was almost certainly completed by one of da Vinci’s pupils, and was probably painted alongside da Vinci as he was working on his own portrait.
This discovery has been groundbreaking for providing more insight into the Mona Lisa’s original appearance. The visual quality of the Mona Lisa on display in the Louvre museum has taken a toll from years of restoration and varnish, and as a result her appearance and colour have been dulled and obscured.
Now, art historians have the option to turn to the Prado’s Mona Lisa for a more detailed look at her physical presentation to fill in some of the blanks left by da Vinci’s portrait. For example, the restoration of the Prado’s painting managed to rehabilitate its palette of vibrant colours, as well as, you guessed it, a pair of eyebrows.
The presence of eyebrows on the Prado Museum’s Mona Lisa is a significant indicator that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may very well have had her own set of brows.