What: Mona Lisa (Painting)
Who: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
When: 1503 possibly to 1517
How: Oil on poplar panel
Where: The Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Mrs. Lisa, shrouded in centuries of mystery, sits silently. She gazes at at us, knowing what she knows, revealing nothing. A statuesque symbol of shadow. We obsess over her supple skin, while she smirks and stands the ultimate test. Infamy.
Hello! Welcome back to Carivaggio. Today we are going to discuss one of the most iconic and infamous painting of all time, the Mona Lisa. Painted over the course of about 14 years, it is shrouded in mystery.
I know what you are thinking, why would I talk about her when you have probably learned something about this piece in the past. Let me tell you, you are in for a wild ride.
Have you ever even noticed the whats in the background of the work? Probably not because I hadn’t until I looked closely. You think you know about the famous girl in the frame, but believe me, she knows more about you than you do her.
PSA: I know that there are many a conspiracy theory about the Mona Lisa, however these will not be discussed here.
Firstly, let us discuss the artist and the work as a whole.
Although there is much to say about Leonardo da Vinci, I want to just give you the basic information on the artist as we have not discussed him at length before. He was born in 1452 and died in 1519 at the age of 67. Leonardo was the master of all masters. Not only was he an artist but an architect, scientist, mathematician, astrologist, botanist, geologist, engineer and more. He also took a keen interest in anatomy - giving him the ability to create the human form with scientific accuracy. The only artist that comes close to the hand of Leonardo was his contemporary Michelangelo (and obviously my boy Caravaggio but I just have to give him an A for effort). Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate example of a Renaissance man. He was deeply intellectual and started pouring enlightened ideas into his artwork. It was astonishing at that time. He was the worlds most obsessive perfectionist and many of his works were left unfinished. Just think - it took him 14 years to even complete the Mona Lisa, and how are we to know he was even finished it with it then. Although had done over 400 works, only 15 (!!!!!!!!!!) are considered complete.
Ok, so now lets talk about good old Mona Lisa
Painted by renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci (you knew this already), the piece was started around 1503 and was finished around the year 1517 (this timeline is not fact and is wildly debated by art historians). It is oil on poplar panel. In the center, sits a woman. She is thought to be modeled after a woman by the name of Lisa del Giocondo who was an Italian noblewoman and member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany. The painting was commissioned by her husband to celebrate the birth of their second son.
The painting was originally titled La Gioconda literally translating to "the happy one". It was a pun on the sitters surname. The painting was not referred to as the Mona Lisa until art historian Giorgio Vasari named it as such some time later in the 16th century after da Vinci had died. The word "Mona" is a sort of title like ma'am or madam, so the paintings name literally translates to Madam Lisa. Also, the painting is WAY smaller than you think it is. If you have seen it in person, I will bet that you were seriously underwhelmed. It is only 30x21in.
This painting is a masterpiece because of the monumental composition, beautiful and subtle modeling of forms as well as atmospheric illusionism.
Now let us break down a few things.
If you were thinking that the likeness of Mrs. Mona Lisa looks familiar, then you would be correct. Considering that this was painted right in the middle of the Renaissance, it looks like it could be a religious painting. She bears a resemblance to a Virgin Mary figure. At this time, the Virgin was a symbol of femininity and womanhood. So it is not surprising that da Vinci would want his leading lady to exude these same qualities. But beyond that. Look at the stillness in her body. She is statuesque, even more than any Virgin Mary imagery I have seen. It is like she is more divine than ant religious being. She is not sitting on a throne (although you may have missed that she is in fact sitting on a chair), for she does not need one. There is an innate power to her. It lies in her eyes, and her elusive smile. I think this takes the viewer back a step. Why do we feel powerless in her presence. At first glance it may look like she has no emotion, but she does. We have no idea what she is trying to tell us. We cannot read her. That leaves the viewer stunned, confused and obsessed.
Mona Lisa has no eyebrows or eyelashes. There are different theories about this. Some scholars maintain that Leonardo did not originally paint her with any of these features as there are reports that high class women plucked these hairs for aesthetic purposes. Others claim that she was painted with eyebrows and lashes, but they faded off over time.
Another reason her expression is so dreamy is Leonardo's use of Sfumato. Sfumato is a painting technique made famous by da Vinci whereby the artist lets colors and tones gradually fade into one another creating a hazy effect. He furthered this effect by not drawing any outlines for the figure, making her look unusual. We have talked about this before; Caravaggio took this technique to create his iconic tenebrism, but that is neither here nor there - just a fun fact.
Look at the corners of her mouth and the corners of her eyes:
The Sfumato is very evident here- its what draws us in and makes her gaze so enticing.
Quick! Don't miss this fun fact. Leonardo worked on Mona Lisa's smile for 12 years....
Moving on, let's look at her hands.
Leonardo poses Mona Lisa with her right hand resting on her left, which represents marriage and fidelity. Notice she does not wear a wedding ring. This hand placement is a universal symbol of modesty. There is a delicacy to these hands. It almost feels as if they are floating. She rests her hands with ease and with confidence. Again, she exudes divinity. It is within her.
Ok, hands were easy enough. Now for something you may not have ever noticed in this painting. The background. Where exactly is she sitting?
(right side detail)
This painting was one of the portraits (after all this is just a portrait even though no one thinks of it like that) in existence to have a sitter be presented in front of an imaginary landscape. You really have no idea where she could be. Leonardo is also one of the first artists to use aerial perspective (the effect where things are seen from a distance).
Uh hello, have you ever noticed that there is the bottom of a column on either side of her?!?!?! Nope, I bet you didn't.
(left side detail)
I cannot tell you what this means but what I can tell you it makes the work a hell of a lot more interesting than you probably thought it was.
Oh, here is something else.
In previous paintings, Leonardo has put the horizon line at the neck level of the figure (see figure 1), but here, he puts the horizon line at the sitters eye line. This interweaves her with the background and adds to the mysterious nature of the work. She is almost a part of the landscape, because she only exists there.
What do you think the background means? Where is she and why is she there? Why is Leonardo showing us this? What could it mean about the artist? Or the sitter?
Usually I would just leave my posts at that. Give you questions to ponder and let them sit. But today, I would like to give some of my own insight on this work if I may. Many of these posts involve a lot of research and not much of my own thought. Let me know what you think and if you enjoy hearing my take.
The Mona Lisa is famous for a reason. Yes, because of the mathematical painting style, the realness to the figure, and the sheer mastery of the work. But just because it was painted at a time where there were academic standards for painting, does that mean da Vinci wanted us to scrutinize every detail? Personally, I would think yes. He was a serious man and dedicated his life to learning. He was a genius, pure and simple. But maybe he just wanted to create the perfect woman. She has porcelain skin that looks soft and supple. Her hair long and flowing, but veiled to dignify her. She sits tall and stiff, grounded to her position. Her dress is modest yet beautifully regal; she reveals the slightest amount of cleavage, owning her womanhood and a sign of sexuality. While still being sexual, her hands are neatly resting right over left. She is married, she is loyal. She sits nowhere, yet she is somewhere. Wherever you want her to be. In that, we see all the signs of what a woman should be. One who is perfectly manufactured to be any man's dream.
But her smile and her gaze. Look into her eyes for a minute. They dig deep into your soul and you get lost in the hazel depths. Her smile, so subtle yet so emotionally stunting. She knows you. She can see you. She has seen you and will see you for centuries to come. Leonardo painted the one who he knew could stand the ultimate test, and play the ultimate game. A woman. A powerful one who has been studied over and over and over. No one can figure her out - and I do not think da Vinci wanted anyone to. She cannot be broken. Her gaze cannot be avoided. She is anywhere and everywhere. For she is Mona Lisa. Her ghost will follow us wherever we go. We cannot escape what is unavoidable. For Mrs. Lisa over here, that is infamy. That is ascension.
Thank you for reading and I hope to see you here again.
Until next time,
Example of Leonardo putting the horizon line at the neck level.
Ginevra de' Benci, Leonardo da Vinci, 1474-1578, Oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.
*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.