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Scientific Legend of Mona Lisa’s Famous Gaze Debunked

The Mona Lisa effect is that eerie feeling that the eyes of painting are following us. But, according to Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, of Bielefeld University, Germany, the peepers of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece don’t actually do this at all. Their research, published in iPerception, is available here.

Newsweek’s article on the research includes a comment on this research by Christopher Tyler. Newsweek’s Kashmira Gander notes:

“Professor Christopher Tyler, a visual neuroscientist at City, University of London, U.K., who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek: “It seems very obvious that Mona Lisa is looking to your right, so it does not surprise me that the researchers were able to show that this is how people perceive it.

“What nobody seems to have explained, despite reams of text written on it, is why it works for some front-facing images and not others. My own view is that the key variable is the perceived depth, or 3D impression, of the face.

“When the face seems flat, the eyes following effect should be much less than when it has a lot of depth. I am not aware of any specific test of this hypothesis, however.”

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Lewis Carroll and Pre-Raphaelite Women by Christopher Tyler at San Francisco Public Library


There is an extensive controversy as to whom Carroll’s ‘Alice’ illustrations were based on. Jeffrey Stern argues that it was Annie Miller, the poor redhead who became the model and lover of William Holman Hunt and other pre-Raphaelites. But there was a passel of other similar pre-Raphaelite redheads, including Christina Rossetti, to whom Carroll presented a copy of the tale, Alice Gray, whose family he photographed, Tryphena Foord, the probable model for Arthur Hughes’ painting of ‘The Lady of the Lilacs’ owned by Carroll, Elizabeth Siddal whom he met in Oxford, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris, the muses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Ellen Terry, the model for a series of paintings including ‘Choosing’ by George Frederick Watts, a young actress who was lauded, loved and photographed by Carroll over at least a decade.

Presentation at “Alice through the Ages” Conference

Presentation at “Alice through the Ages” Conference, imagePresentation by Christopher Tyler
Alice through the Ages” Conference

Homerton College, Cambridge,
Sept 15th-17th, 2015.

There is one large-scale motif running through the two books that has largely escaped critical attention – the pervasive mediaeval theme. It is remarkable that there has been little examination main context of the Alice stories, the mediaeval temperament of many of the characters. The present treatment focuses on some remarkable parallels between the travails of the fictional Alice and a historical Alice who lived in the time of the knights and castles, duchesses and chess games that figure so largely in the narrative. This earlier Alice spent her life as a trading pawn of the Plantagenet and Capetian monarchs of England and France, a lost soul on the checkerboard of 12th century territorial intrigues. She was a daughter of King Louis VII of France known as Alice of the Vexin, an aptly eponymous territory that has been the site of struggles between the English and continental powers from the 10th to the 20th centuries. For much of her life, this Princess Alice was held hostage by the Plantagenet court, successively held as a bargaining chip by Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, and their sons Richard the Lionheart and John.

The talk explores the proposition that Lewis Carroll, in his efforts to beguile the young Alice Liddell on their boat trips between Oxford and Woodstock might have drawn inspiration for many aspects of the Alice stories from the local mediaeval history of two of the principal castles of these towns, Beaumont Palace and Woodstock Castle, which served as two of the courts of these protagonists (and where both Plantagenet princes were born). As the son of a mediaevalist (Rev Charles Dodgson), Lewis Carroll had ample opportunity for exposure to these stories, known from the mediaeval history of Ranulf Higden of Cheshire.

Alice Book Cover