Everyone knows who she is and everyone knows who painted her. But why is Leonardo Da Vinci’s the Mona Lisa one of the most famous paintings in the world?
It might surprise you to know that the painting isn’t very big, only 30 x 21 inches and it’s a portrait (most experts suspect) of Madonna Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini the wife of a successful merchant. Sounds pretty standard, right? Well then why is it considered on the greatest portraits of all time 500 years after it was painted.
At the time, portraits of people were always painted in a profile pose, as shown above (minus my little additions). The way the sitters were positioned and how their clothes were painted, looked stiff, contrived and not natural. But Leonardo painted Mona Lisa in a relaxed, three-quarter pose which makes her look as though she’s in the space. It might seem normal to us but back then this was mind blowing. The three-quarter pose has for the most part since become the defacto pose for all sorts of portraits, even today.
Leonardo created a technique that changed everything. He called it Sufamato. The technique involved using lots of translucent layers of paint, to create shapes with no harsh lines. If you look at Mona Lisa’s face you’ll see that it looks as though she’s emerging out of shadow. Again, mind blowing at the time. Sfumato blends colours so subtly that the gradation gives the impression of volume and form (for all the ladies reading this, it’s basically like contouring). This gives extreme realism to her appearance and shows how light would have fallen on her naturally. To make it simple, you know when you take a bad selfie and use a filter to make yourself look ten times better? Leonardo basically invented the first ever filter.
The rocky scene in the background looks realistic. But the two of landscapes on either side of Mona Lisa don’t match up. The landscape on the left is noticeably lower than the one on the right. You might be thinking that this is a mistake but actually, Leonardo did it on purpose. By creating a fictional landscape he actually wanted to create a painting that is full of harmony and balance instead of something that might have been real. Think of it as early photoshop. Also, if you notice the background becomes hazier as the distance increases. This gives the illusion of realistic space, another revolution at the time, as most paintings back then were painted with extreme detail in the background so it looked flat. Think of that as really bad photoshop.
This Hand is your Hand, This Hand is my Hand, oh wait, That’s your hand
The fact that Leonardo included Mona Lisa’s hands in his portrait is revolutionary for several reasons. First of all, it wasn’t common to include the sitter’s hands when painting their portraits at the time, secondly they are beautifully painted and mind bogglingly realistic. Leonardo was obsessed with anatomy and many of his research included detailed studies of hands. Also, if you see how the hands are placed, one over the other, it only adds to Mona Lisa’s relaxed ‘whateves’ pose.
All Eyes on Me
Mona Lisa isn’t the most beautiful woman but people didn’t notice that. It was something in the way she is looking at us that is inviting, teasing like she knows something that we don’t. Women were hardly ever painted looking directly out at the viewer they were always looking somewhere within the world of the painting. But the Mona Lisa is gazing at us, suggestively which added to her realism.
That Smile . . .
Is it a half smile? A full smile? Quirky? Weird? Sexy? Scientists have tried but can’t figure out why different people all have different interpretation of what kind of smile Leonardo painted. The posture of her lips look incredibly real thanks to the sfumato effect and Leonardo’s aim to recreate realism. There are pages of his notebook with sketches of all the different postures and expressions a mouth and lips make all in his quest to paint the most realistic lips.
Will the real Mona Lisa please stand up!
Like I mentioned earlier, the Mona Lisa was initially a portrait of Madonna Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini. However, her husband never actually received the painting. There have also been conflicting records and accounts of how the portrait actually looked. This lead some people to believe that Leonardo might have painted two Mona Lisa portraits. Then in December of 2015, French scientist Pascal Cotte spent ten years using light reflective technology to find that there is a hidden portrait underneath the surface of the painting! According to him, the hidden portrait is the original Mona Lisa while the one we know is an idealised version of what every perfect woman should look and appear to be in all her truth and beauty.