Yesterday, Valerie Kent asked, “Do you think Leonardo visualized and pre-planned the Mona Lisa smile or did the brush slip a bit? Perhaps he thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t look too bad. I think I’ll leave it.'”
Thanks, Valerie. I’ve always thought there was something a bit funny about that smile. It bears the mark of an artist who laboured too long. Mouths, as every portrait painter knows, can give a lot of trouble. Very often, with the first few brushstrokes the mouth seems pretty darned good–and close to “right.” Then fiddling and adjusting take over, resulting in mouth-al compromise. In painterly terms this is called “normalizing” — the tendency to work toward a norm or a standard. I got a clue to this when Leonardo’s biographer Vasari mentioned that the Mona job took the master four years. This, incidentally, made me feel better about some of my own commissions. But I digress. Fact is, when you look at something long enough, you fail to see it the way it really is. Also, the youthful girl’s face undoubtedly changed during the effort. In the tedium of her interminable sittings, she might have moved her mouth a bit too. No, that mouth was not the result of a slip of the brush. It was noodled that way.
The painting known as Mona Lisa has been one of the most celebrated, studied, disputed, cut up, damaged, copied, parodied and stolen paintings in history. Back in 1867, when it was less well known, the critic Walter Pater said it was “the mythic embodiment of the eternal feminine.” In 2004, Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs announced that Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait. She supports this theory with the results of a digital comparison of Leonardo’s known facial features. The gay Leonardo, she figures, needed to paint himself as a woman. Interestingly, a characteristic of portrait painting many have noticed is that long-worked facial features become transmogrified into those of the painter. Nevertheless, it seems most likely that it started out as the 20- to 24-year-old Lisa Gherardini. There are many opinions. Researcher Maike Vogt-Luerssen thinks Mona Lisa is Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Milan. In his backwards writing Leonardo refers to her as “a certain Florentine woman.” We’ll never know. Notwithstanding identification problems, Mona Lisa will forever have the sort of smile that is “enigmatic,” “mysterious,” and “come-hither.”
PS: “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa,
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” (lyrics by Wyclef Jean)
Esoterica: The solid brown shading and modeling of the neck and head indicate a desire to go almost surreal with the face. It’s known that Leonardo dragged the painting, if not the sitter, around with him to other spots, including Amboise, in France. He eventually sold it there to King Francoise I, for 4000 écus. Of further interest is the pastoral background — the horizon on one side is higher than on the other. You might also note Mona’s startling but modish hairlessness — no eyebrows or eyelashes. Plucking feminine facial hair was big business in 1516.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa
by Richard Rabkin
Regarding Mona Lisa’s smile, Leonardo actually did all his mouths the same way. The little puckering of the corners of the mouth, sometimes called a “sparrow’s ass” by irreverent artists, are always somewhat circular and deep. It is only in the Mona Lisa that it has been commented on.
Margaret S. Livingstone in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing believes that the values and chromatics are different in the mouth area so that, if you look out of the corner of your eyes and see only values, you see a different expression than if you look straight on and see the mouth in color. She believes that this is what makes it enigmatic.
Frequent sightings of Mona
by Roberta Faulhaber-Razafy, Paris, France
I live in Paris and see the Mona Lisa quite frequently at the Louvre (when I can get anywhere near her through the crowds around this painting behind glass — a bit frustrating as you can imagine). My impression is that he normalized it in the sense he “stylized” it into a typical Leonardo mouth, but I can’t say I find it overworked, if I’ve understood you correctly. That smile is everywhere in his work, and I suspect he would be incapable of being satisfied with anything else… perhaps buccal ambiguity has some deeper, more obscure meaning… do we want to go there?
Mona Lisa magic is in the hype
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
When I got a chance to visit the Louvre a couple of years ago, I made sure that in the one day I had there, I should make sure to visit a few key artworks in my wanderings through the galleries. Of course, the Mona Lisa was one of these. However, when I entered the room where the painting lives, I was astonished to see a huge crowd of people fighting (elbows in use!) to get to the front to see this painting. I discovered that I was far more fascinated with the crowd dynamics than with the painting, which I found (dare I say) to be small and not as magical as I was led to believe. John Berger in his book, Ways of Seeing talks about the religiosity of art works and I had to think that this painting, for one, has had so much hype that its magic is largely found in the hype. I wonder how many people go to see the Mona Lisa just to say they’ve seen it.
‘Up close and personal’ at the Louvre
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
This past September I was fortunate to have a few days in Paris en route to a painting workshop in the Auvergne. I got up early one morning and caught the Metro to the Louvre to be there right at opening time. My first stop was the Venus de Milo, where there was no one but the two of us at first, and then on to the Mona Lisa. There were only about 20 other people in that great hall, so it was lovely to be able to spend a bit of time ‘up close and personal’ with this icon, and really look at it from several angles. I will always remember that morning. I have just come across a small book called, A Writer’s Paris: A guided journey for the creative soul by Eric Maisel. It talks about taking a particular time in Paris to write, but can be applied to any creative activity. It has many good and encouraging suggestions, and its main theme is just to do whatever your creative thing might be, every day. You could do this anywhere, but I must admit that it makes me want to go back and just draw and paint this time. Maybe it is time to start making plans again.
More on Mona Lisa’s smile
by Dave Kellam Brown, Dallas, TX, USA
A hint towards what Margaret Livingstone explains in her enthralling book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing about the Mona Lisa smile phenomenon is that the “coarse components” (those seen best by peripheral vision and comprised primarily of values) show more smile than the “fine details” (seen primarily in the foveal or central vision area). Thus Lisa seems to be smiling more when seen “out of the corner of your eye” but you can’t seem to catch her at it!
How we view art
by Pat Kagan, Rockville, MD, USA
A year or two ago, I attended a lecture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. about how we view art. The talk was on both vision and the brain’s interpretation of what we “see.” When we see the Mona Lisa’s mouth changing to that momentary smile, the lecturer explained, we are experiencing the difference between direct and peripheral vision. When we look at something directly, we see it in detail. When our peripheral vision catches sight of the same thing, while our eyes are directly focused on something else nearby, the peripheral view is a little blurred, much as it is when we screw up our eyes as artists to get the big shapes and to obscure detail. When we look directly at the mouth, we see it in detail and it is not smiling. When we look at the eyes, and the peripheral view of the mouth is observed, the general lights and darks imply a smile. We are missing the detail. It is this switching from direct observation of the mouth to the eyes that makes us aware of the changing smile. I thought this a very interesting explanation, and it certainly worked for me. Do try it.
Mona Lisa’s smile not mistake
by James Heumann, Juneau, AK, USA
Da Vinci’s paintings were limited in number, but his drawings were prolific, and provide clear evidence of his status as a master of composition and detail. Mona Lisa’s smile is perfect in that it tracks one of the gentle imperfections of human beauty. I’ve seen that smile with my own eyes (on occasion) and am awed. These beautiful imperfections are rare, but occur every day; as observed in Lauren Hutton’s gap tooth smile, the curve of Jacquelyn Kennedy’s neck, or the unidentified person captured in simple contemplation or while accomplishing a basic task. In short, the beauty of the Mona Lisa is that the artist simply quieted his mind and let himself paint what was before him. May we do the same!
Mona’s eyes hold the key
by Julee Norton-Cohen, Sedona, CA, USA
Perhaps my Italian Renaissance Art History Professor was mistaken when she told the class that Mona was never sold and was one of three paintings found with the artist upon his death adding more to the mystery surrounding Mona. Leonardo was a scoundrel… one just has to look at what happened with Madonna of the Rocks. My professor might also have been mistaken there as well. Actually, I’m not fond of this professor… but one does have to ponder these questions. Mona’s “enigmatic smile” is, yes, of interest but what about her eyes? I find her eyes more intriguing, especially since she is looking out at us as the viewer, something revolutionary during the Italian Renaissance (my professor again). But the eyes are the windows and I think Mona’s eyes, and how they are rendered, hold the key to making this a great painting.
Peasant Mona predates
by Fritzi Huber, Wilmington, NC, USA
Upon reading your letter regarding the Mona Lisa I couldn’t help but recall several other paintings in the Louvre by Leonardo that show a striving towards this one. It may be moved to another location in the Museum by now, but in ’98 there was another portrait, just outside Mona’s room, that was extremely close. It is approximately the same size, has a similar smile and her attire is more that of a peasant. I looked at them both (back and forth, back and forth) and found that this other was a striving towards the one we all know. It does predate. Not so much darkness either. I’ve never seen it in print. Do you know her?
Leonardo’s 4-year formula
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
I had no idea Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa for four years. It’s almost as if he was working out a mathematical formula or a proof — intuitively knowing that the end result would be a painting that would confound the art community to the day it simply dissolves into dust. I have read its condition is close that. Leonardo strikes me as a man who would delight in such a ruse.
Pink Mona and Blue Mona
by Anne Swannell, Victoria, BC, Canada
You might be interested in these two images derived, of course (via Photoshop and me), from you-know-whose. Why? Because they show that no matter what you do to the hair and the clothing to up-date this lady, that smile remains enigmatic.
By the way, I find Leonardo’s image a bit odd from another perspective. Mona Lisa’s head doesn’t seem quite centred on her body. For example, her cleavage is not where it ought to be: it’s too far to the left.
Nomination for contemporary legacy
by Gabriella Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
Isn’t it amazing how a 500+ year old painting left a legacy of guesswork, scholarly conjecture and controversial opinions? Does anyone else wonder what similar influence any work made during the past 100 years will have on future generations? Can we get such a list, with reasons why, of such contemporary works? My vote is for Christo and Jeanne Claude’s installation of The Running Fence which to me addresses notions and ideas about enclosure and limits that may be temporary, permeable, and subject to change. Of course, in 500+ years the only traces of this work that may be able to be seen and read about will be photographic/digital images or another not yet invented technology for imaging. The Museum with walls will give way to the Museum-without-walls because there will be an awful lot of art made between now and then that couldn’t physically be housed in buildings such as the Louvre.
by Alan Stewart, Marietta, GA, USA
The lyrics you attribute to Wyclef Jean are actually from a song, Mona Lisa, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (C 1957 Famous Music, ASCAP). For me, the most recognizable rendition of this classic was recorded by Nat King Cole. Apparently it was the #1 hit song (according to Billboard) for eight weeks in 1950. The song won an Academy Award when it was used in the film, Captain Carey, U.S.A., starring Alan Ladd.
Search for perfect medium
by Carol Hama Chang, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I think you can tell Cyndie Katz that you have almost convinced me of switching to that plastic goop for good! I love oils, but was having misgivings about similar problems, plus that Liquin I use to speed up drying, plus the clean up. I use detergents. Once every couple of days I will clean up with cooking oil (to keep the bristles supple), then detergent to get rid of that oil. But the process is long and tedious and the bristles are getting that “beat up” appearance. There are so many mediums and other stuff that is still volatile. So I started dabbling in acrylics. I like it. In fact my last three paintings were exclusively done in that plastic medium. Why is it so hard for me to “let go” of a time-honoured medium even though I know there is something more convenient to use?
Am I the only artist too frugal to abandon perfectly good supplies in favour of a different medium? I already have a complete collection of watercolour stuff including a huge tabletop matt-cutter and metal file drawers full of perfectly good watercolour paper that’s not getting used! How many times are we expected to switch in our search for that “perfect” medium? It’s almost like searching for that “perfect” computer…
Egg tempera combines advantages of both
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
Regarding your “Acrylic snob” letter of June 2, I couldn’t help but laugh. Asking whether oil or acrylic is the “better” medium is like asking whether horses or rabbits are the fastest land animal. I am a painter and printmaker, and my medium of choice for the last 10 years has been egg tempera, so I find the whole “oil or acrylic” debate amusing.
Egg tempera combines the advantages of both oil and acrylic: it dries quickly, can be reworked, allows for a wide range of luminous and subtle colour effects (though not impasto), doesn’t yellow or darken, is fairly portable… in fact, of the advantages of acrylics which you listed, the only one that does not apply to egg tempera would be flexibility, as it works best on a rigid substrate. While some people would consider the fact that it doesn’t come in a tube to be a disadvantage, it does tend to weed out the dilettantes. I use it for both landscape and figurative work, and I find it to be more intuitive than acrylic and the fact that it dries so quickly is a big advantage over oil — I can more easily fix my mistakes, and don’t tend to smudge the work I’ve already done. As well as the traditional and time-consuming crosshatching to create depth and contours, it can be used to create effects approaching drybrush watercolour, and nothing reproduces the texture of rocks like spattering with egg tempera. Regarding longevity, you noted that acrylics have been used successfully for more than 70 years, and while I have no pretensions to having my work outlive me, it should be noted that egg tempera paintings have survived for more than 700 years!
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes John Padgett who wrote, “You’ll find interesting reading regarding DaVinci and Mona Lisa in The Da Vinci Code, too. Everyone has an opinion which does not take away from the painting itself.”
And also Jayson Phillips who wrote, “Oops. That song is provided courtesy from Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans. The talented Mr. Jean cannot lay claim of authorship to those particular lyrics. Nat King Cole and, later, his daughter Natalie are most identified with this song. And, of course, the painting Mona Lisa is actually named La Giaconda.”
And also Amanda Jackson of Lincoln, UK who wrote, “Thanks so much for The Painter’s Keys. I don’t know what I’d do without it these days. It’s a lonely trade sometimes being a painter, especially one living in the middle east, but twice a week there you are, and countless others too — clicking back with constructive comment.”
And also Claudia Croxton who wrote, “You are just amazing! I am really enjoying the twice-weekly letters I have started receiving the past few weeks. Very informative and interesting. Please keep them coming! I also love the Resource of Art Quotations and have just scratched the surface! How great to have this at my fingertips!”