When we think about the most famous paintings, the Mona Lisa is one of the first to come to mind. The Mona Lisa quite easily takes place in the top five, if not taking the number one rank as the most famous painting in the world.
It has remained largely loved and discussed by not only art lovers but everyone around the globe. So, a question that does come to mind is ‘Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?’
What Is the Mona Lisa?
The Mona Lisa is a half-body oil painting on a wood panel, depicting a lady with an eerie gaze and an ominous smile. A gentle landscape serves as the background of the portrait. The artist of this masterpiece was the Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci.
Mona is a short form used for the Italian word Madonna, which means ‘My Lady.’
Mona Lisa is depicted in a relaxed sitting position, with her face and torso turned towards the front (i.e. the observer). Her hair and the folded fabric of her clothes fall onto her left shoulder, and a delicately painted veil sits on her head.
The Artist- Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, scientist and an overall genius. Born in Vinci, Italy, on 15th April 1452, he created only around twenty paintings before his death on May 2nd, 1519, at the age of 67.
Having interests in several fields and being a master of his craft, he was considered the ideal ‘Renaissance Man.’ The term Renaissance Man or Polymath was coined in the Renaissance period for someone who had an interest in and was good at many things, which held quite true in da Vinci’s case, who was not only a good painter but also a scientist, inventor and architect
Although he made only twenty paintings in his lifetime, with several incomplete ones left behind, these paintings have found their place in the world as some of the most revolutionary pieces of art.
The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are two of the most memorable works that da Vinci created.
Leonardo took an interest in art at an early age. After he left his family home, he lived in Milan for 17 years, where he created a majority of his paintings.
For the next few years, da Vinci travelled through Italy, receiving several commissions. One of these was the Mona Lisa, commissioned by a silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo.
The precise time that Leonardo da Vinci spent working on the Mona Lisa is still under speculation but it is largely believed that it was painted from 1503-1506. In 1506, the famous painter was invited to become the official painter in the French Court by King Francis I. He took the Mona Lisa along with him. Thus, the Mona Lisa never ended up in the hands of the one who had commissioned it.
Several people believed that he didn’t complete da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1506 and that he continued to work on it and make changes until much later in his life.
The Muse- Lisa del Giocondo
In artistic terms, a muse serves as the inspiration for the artist or one on whom the piece of art is based.
In the case of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s muse is believed to be Lisa del Giocondo. Hence the painting is also referred to as La Gioconda in Italian and La Joconde in French, but is most commonly addressed with the title ‘Mona Lisa’. Although, there is still some uncertainty about the exact identity of the sitter in the portrait
Lisa del Giocondo (born as Lisa Gherardini) was an Italian noblewoman. Born in Florance to the Gherardini family, she was later married to Francesco del Giocondo. He was a cloth and silk merchant who commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of his wife.
Why is the Mona Lisa Such a Famous Painting?
At first glance, the Mona Lisa seems to be a simple painting of an ordinary woman. But a closer look at Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic technique and the portrait itself gives us an idea as to why da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is such a famous painting and a favourite among art historians.
It is not a single feature but rather a bunch of small aspects, circumstances and details that make the Mona Lisa extraordinary.
1. Art Techniques
Leonardo was a master of artistic techniques, so much so that he is credited to have perfected the technique known as Sfumato. The word sfumato, taken from the Italian word Sfumare means ‘to evaporate’. Translated into English, the word means blurred, faded or vanished, which is exactly what he has achieved through the sfumato technique.
The technique allows a seamless transition between light and dark shades and often between different colours without leaving behind lines or strokes. The strokes of paint used seem to be almost non-existent.
Through this technique, Leonardo played with light and shadows in his paintings, giving them depth and an element of realism.
Perfecting the Sfumato Technique
Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s perfection of the sfumato art technique lies his research on light, human anatomy, perspective, and other scientific research.
Da Vinci was, in the truest sense, a scientist and spent much of his time studying even the minutest details, from the way the muscles of the mouth work to the curve of the body and translated that into his art.
Layers of Glaze
The secret behind Leonardo’s sfumato is multiple layers of extremely thin glaze applied on top of each other. The transparent glaze was used on top of the paint to obtain minor colour changes.
This discovery was made in a study undertaken at the Centre for Research and Restoration of French Museums by Philippe Walter and his colleagues. Around 40 layers of glaze of varying thickness were applied to Mona Lisa’s smile to obtain the soft smile (or smirk, as some may call it).
Leonardo is believed to have used his fingers to apply the glaze to avoid the harsh lines caused by the strokes of a paintbrush. It is such inexhaustible patience and careful rendering by him that has made Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa such an iconic painting.
Leonardo has also used the sfumato technique in several other paintings of his, such as Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
2. Mona Lisa’s Eyes
Ever since one can recall, two features of the Mona Lisa that have garnered the most interest in the Mona Lisa painting are the eyes and the smile.
Eyes and Eyebrows
When we focus on and around the eyes of the Mona Lisa, something peculiar that we may notice is the absence of eyebrows and eyelashes. Although there is a faint indication of where the eyebrows ought to be, they aren’t explicitly seen.
In 2007, a French engineer named Pascal Cotte observed the Mona Lisa using a high-definition camera to prove that the face did have eyebrows and eyelashes. He found a single brush stroke used to depict eyebrow hair, thus backing his theory.
The most common belief as to why they are no longer visible is that the paint has faded over time, with restoration work being done, exposure to the outside environment etc.
The Mona Lisa Effect
Ever heard someone talk about how it seems like Mona Lisa’s eyes are following you? Well, that is called the Mona Lisa effect. It is the feeling that the subject’s eyes follow the observer in a painting when the observer moves.
This real phenomenon can be observed in several pieces of artwork. It is a sort of optical illusion that has piqued people’s interest for many years now.
This effect was named after the painting of the Mona Lisa after people felt that the Mona Lisa looked as if she were following the observer with her gaze.
Ironically, the myth that this effect is observable in the Mona Lisa painting has been debunked in recent years.
Professor Dr. Gernot Horstmann of the Neuro-Cognitive Psychology research group observed that for effect to hold in a painting, the subject ought to be looking at zero degrees, straight ahead, whereas the gaze of the lady in the image is a little to the right.
So although the eyes of Mona Lisa may appear to be following the viewer, the entirety of the effect cannot be observed in the painting of the Mona Lisa itself.
Regardless, the Mona Lisa has gifted the world with a new insight into the play of illusions and perspectives in the art world.
3. Mona Lisa’s Smile
Mona Lisa’s smile holds mystery. One of the main reasons the Mona Lisa is so famous lies in the art techniques used by Leonardo to paint her smile.
A Range of Emotion
Viewers have interpreted her expression in several different ways, from a subtle smile to a smirk to not being a smile at all. Her smile also seems to convey several different emotions, such as happiness, and sadness, to one that is rather difficult to make out.
This very nature of the smile raises the question of what she thinks or what emotion she is trying to convey. Furthermore, the mystery surrounding created through the blurred landscape raises more questions regarding the real message behind the painting.
It intrigues the observer as to what hidden secrets the lady holds, repeatedly drawing them back to the painting.
The Flickering of a Smile
Mona Lisa’s smile seems to flicker when attention is directed from the eyes to the mouth. One minute, it is prominent,, and the next moment,, it almost disappears.
Her smile seems more prominent when the attention is on the eyes and seems a lot more subtle (almost absent) when the attention is drawn directly to the mouth.
The Science Behind the Art
There is great science behind even the simple curve of Mona Lisa’s smile. To perfect the smile in the painting, Leonardo studied the muscles by dissecting human faces to understand how they connect and move. He combined this knowledge with the understanding of light, space and perspective.
Da Vinci took a great interest in science, especially in human anatomy, which can be observed through his various sketches of the human head (detailed with the skull beneath it, the brain) along with his drawing of the Vitruvian Man.
Thus the combination of the sfumato technique, shadows, the viewers’ perspective, space and distance and meticulous attention to detail creates an extraordinary illusion, using which Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa.
4. Has Leonardo da Vinci Painted a Self-Portrait?
Lisa Gherardini or female da Vinci? This has been a question raised in the past regarding the true identity of the sitter in the painting.
As mentioned above, although the sitter’s identity is largely believed to be Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, there is a lack of concrete proof.
Traces of masculine features have been observed in the Mona Lisa. The first person to notice so was artist Susan Dorothea White. This has led art historians to believe that the Mona Lisa is inspired by both male and female models, with da Vinci using features of both.
Another speculation regarding the subject’s identity is that Leonardo has painted a self-portrait depicted as the opposite gender. Scholar Lillian Schwartz was one of the first to claim so, supporting White’s theory.
The Mona Lisa is inarguably a very realistic portrait. The subtle gradations, overall model form, life-like facial expression, relaxed posture, finely wrought tresses that fall onto the shoulders and da Vinci’s efforts to make his art as scientifically accurate as possible have given the painting a life-like feel.
It seems as though the person in the painting is trying to convey a very specific yet mysterious emotion to the observer and they may step out of the frame at any time.
6. The World Famous Theft
Can something not be ing where it is supposed to make it famous? Absolutely! Well, at least in the case of the Mona Lisa, the answer is yes.
The Mona Lisa has found its home in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre Museum, displayed in 1804.
In 1911, the painting was stolen from the museum by Vincenzo Peruggia. This unimaginable robbery of such a popular painting sent the media into a frenzy, with news of the robbery and photos of the painting being covered through all possible media outlets.
It was in December 1913 that the thief was finally caught in Florence, and the painting was displayed at the Uffizi Gallery of Florence until 1914. It was later brought back to the French Museum
The Mona Lisa was put in a glass case in the 1950s. It was in 2019 that the glass was changed to bulletproof glass to ensure its maximum safety by the French Government.
Leonardo Da Vinci Painted the Future
The Mona Lisa has been considered the epitome of extraordinary art for as long as one can remember. Although thousands have attempted to replicate this masterpiece, including the Isleworth Mona Lisa created by da Vinci (with the same subject depicted at a younger age), the sheer beauty of the original Mona Lisa is unparalleled.
Da Vinci painted a new future for art and artists to come. Leonardo’s skill was ahead of his time, and it is this brilliant skill that created the ideal circumstances for the Mona Lisa to become a masterpiece and helps to answer the question of why is the Mona Lisa so famous.