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One of the most legendary reasons for the Mona Lisa’s fame is her mischievous smile. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in such a way that the eyes of the Mona Lisa fall into the center of vision of the user, while the lips fall into the peripheral vision.
While having a conversation with a friend, the topic of the Mona Lisa came up unexpectedly; more specifically, why the price of any painting would approach $1 billion.
In my opinion (and this is a personal take), if one were to give the Mona Lisa a cursory glance or observe it with an untrained eye, it doesn’t seem to possess any particular WOW factor. However, a random piece of art would not be appraised at around 830 million dollars in 2018. Now, before we dive into the painting itself, let’s first take a brief look at the man behind this famous painting.
Who painted the Mona Lisa?
Leonardo da Vinci, an artist, scientist and inventor during the Italian Renaissance, is the painter of the Mona Lisa. He is considered to be one of the most versatile polymaths of all time. The term ‘Renaissance Man’ (someone versatile in a plethora of things) was coined based on Leonardo’s many talents and is today used to describe people who are similarly versatile in terms of talent. Leonardo was born in the town of Vinci, Italy, on April 15, 1452.
Little is known about his childhood, aside from the fact that his father was wealthy and had many wives. Around the age of 14, he became an apprentice to a famous artist named Verrocchio, which is where he learned about art, painting, drawing and more.
Apart from the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s other works are also incredibly exquisite. He kept journals full of drawings and sketches, usually of different subjects that he was studying. Some of these drawings were sketches for other drawings, some were studies of anatomy, and some were more akin to scientific sketches. One of his most famous drawings is the Vitruvian Man.
The Vitruvian Man is a picture of a man with perfect proportions, according to the notes from the Roman architect Vitruvius. Other famous drawings include a design for a flying machine and a number of self-portraits.
When was the Mona Lisa painted?
It is believed that Da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 or 1504 in Florence (Italy). It took Da Vinci 4 years to finish painting the Mona Lisa, despite its surprisingly small size.
Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?
Leonardo da Vinci used several unique and innovative techniques to paint the Mona Lisa. The painting redefined the rules of contemporary art at the time and the method he employed has become an integral part of today’s art school curriculum.
The technique (of not using lines or borders)
One of the tools da Vinci created was the sfumato technique, which translates to ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’. It was typical at the time for artists to form an outline, whereas Da Vinci did not use outlines, but instead used different tones/shades of paint to create the illusion of light and shadow.
Starting with dark undertones, he built the illusion of three-dimensional features through layers and layers of thin, semi-transparent glazes. He used darker shades to highlight features and borders of the subject. The use of this technique caught the interest of the art circle in Paris and was hailed as a groundbreaking innovation in painting.
There were many other unique characteristics of the Mona Lisa that intrigued the art world and viewers, such as the landscape (mountains and rivers) in the background. A portrait was usually drawn with a background of open sky, a monotone background, or a room. The background was also unusual due to the dimensions of the mountains.
However, these small points of uniqueness are only recognized by people in the know or by those who have studied the painting; this still doesn’t explain why everyone in the world seems to wants to see it.
The Mona Lisa’s Smile
One of the most popular reasons for the Mona Lisa’s global appeal is her smile. Da Vinci exploited an optical illusion to create a unique smile through perspective and his use of shadow work. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in such a way that the eyes of the Mona Lisa fall directly in the center of vision of the viewer, while the lips fall just under the periphery of one’s vision. His sfumato technique further ensured that the eyes and the lips were the most prominent features.
Whenever the viewer looks into the Mona Lisa’s eyes, the mouth falls into the peripheral vision, so the features of the mouth are slightly less distinct; along with a little shading of the cheekbones, this makes the mouth look like a smile.
However, once the focus of the viewer lands on the smile, it slowly disappears, as if it were never a smile to begin with. This is where the magic of Leonardo’s skill resides, and that’s what made this legendary painting unique in comparison to other paintings of the time.
Interpretations of the Mona Lisa’s smile
There are various interpretations to the smile; some say it’s a happy smile, some find it deceptive, and still others feel that it is a sad smile. Apart from the very nature of the smile, it has also led to many speculations as to who the subject was; in other words, whose face inspired the most famous painting in history? The facial expression gives the painting an enigmatic quality, leaving the viewer wondering what the model was thinking, who she was, and why she seems happy to some and sad to others.
Who was Mona Lisa?
The subject of the paintings is popularly believed to be the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. The painting was commissioned for their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. The subject of the painting is purportedly named Lisa del Gioncondo.
In those days, in Italy, Mona meant Madonna, which was how all women were addressed (e.g., Mrs.) and therefore the name Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa, is also called La Jaconde. There are some other controversial stories as to who the subject of the painting is. The Mona Lisa, was always displayed in a place of importance, even publicly displayed in the Fontainebleau, Francois I’s favorite château in 1519. In 1800, the Mona Lisa was hung in Napoleon’s bedroom, and in 4 years it was moved to the Louvre, which it still calls home.
Hidden Secrets in the Mona Lisa
There are rumors of hidden secrets and symbols within the painting. Academicians have identified evidence of various (unknown) layers of pictures within the Mona Lisa. Scholars are said to have identified at least four different paintings that may be varieties of the Mona Lisa, with several different people as the subject. Some claim that Da Vinci actually painted the Mona Lisa in his likeness, as a female Da Vinci.
Da Vinci was known to be an interesting character himself, in addition to being an inventor, artist and scientist. In his heyday and under the patronage of Francois I, he managed to create an aura of celebrity around himself. His fame rubbed off on the Mona Lisa, which was also favored by Francois I, his patron.
It is important to know that only 20 finished canvas paintings were done by Da Vinci during his lifetime, further increasing the Mona Lisa’s rarity. The fact that it was stolen in the early days of the 20th century added further to its fame. Artists like Duchamp, Dali and Warhol publicized the painting further through their own reproductions. The painting has been used as an object for mass reproduction, merchandising, lampooning and speculation, and has been reproduced in 300 different paintings and more than 2,000 advertisements.
The Mona Lisa continues to be studied by artists and academicians to uncover the apparent mystery that hands around her like a shroud. Its reputation as a carrier of symbols, secrets and other unknown mysteries will surely keep the popularity of the Mona Lisa intact for a very long time.