The science of art yields ... questions

Every once in a while science can answer questions about a work of art.

When people look at the "Mona Lisa," for example, the smile of the woman in Leonardo da Vinci's early 16th-century masterpiece seems to fade and then return. How did da Vinci do that?

Last fall, a Harvard University scientist told The New York Times that she had discovered the "secret" of the Mona Lisa's mysterious, ambiguous smile. The human eye, it turns out, has two kinds of vision, detail-oriented central vision and less-precise peripheral vision. When people look Mona Lisa right her eyes, her mouth is only in their peripheral vision. Her cheekbones "read" as part of a "smile."

But when the central vision glances down to directly examine the smile, it isn't really there. Thus we are forever frustrated in trying to catch the enigmatic lady's smile and never succeeding except out of the corner of our eye.

This week the British magazine New Scientist will report how scientists at Southwest Texas State calculated the exact day that Vincent van Gogh painted one of his works, "The White House at Night." Agence France Press says the scientists discovered that one of the stars in Van Gogh's starry sky was really the planet Venus, sometimes called "the evening star." By figuring where Venus would have been in the sky at various times at the French village where the work was painted, they pinpointed the date as June 16, 1890.

Did da Vinci know about the tricks "Mona Lisa" would play with the eye? What does the timing of Van Gogh's work tell us of his intentions? Answers, it seems, always lead to more questions.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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