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Da Vinci's Mona Lisa

Few paintings are so well known as Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and explaining her popularity is one thing we shall try to do on this page.
Through the ages people have tried to explain Mona Lisa's smile and some people have wondered why the Mona Lisa is such a reputable artwork anyway. Please allow me to try to approach this question from an artist's point of view, arguments which may (or may not) have been put forward before. Of course this text doesn't make a dent in the established theories, it's just a webpage.

There may have been greater painters, even than Da Vinci, but maybe Da Vinci was the greatest portraitist of all time. No other painter has been able to express the facial subtleties of the human character with such startling accuracy as Da Vinci did. This is especially clear in paintings like the "Lady with the Ermine". Authors describe her as "the unspoiled, young Cecilia Galleriana...with her beauty and virtues". In spite of the admiration that Da Vinci seemed to feel and the position she occupied at Ludovico il Moro's court in Milan, the way he portrayed her is particularly realistic, almost mundane.
Cecilia Galleriana image

On the one hand she portrayed her as a saint and higher being, on the other there is the somewhat insecure young woman, at least while posing for Da Vinci. And perhaps we may note a touch of conceit. Da Vinci's discerning eye spared no-one, in some cases resulting in sobering views of the human experience, and there lay Da Vinci's genius as a portraitist. He captured every corner of the human character, good and bad. We may assume however, that he intended Galleriana's portrait as a tribute, look at the elegance of her right hand.

Returning to the Mona Lisa, some people wonder why it is that her facial expression seems to change depending on the direction from which you look at her.
Given the fact that Da Vinci manages to capture so many different emotions and character-traits in one painting, it seems natural that every time one looks at the Mona Lisa, one sees something different, irrespective from which direction the painting is looked at. In that light her "mysterious smile" seems nothing out of the ordinary. Because it's difficult to view all the portrayed emotions and aspects of Mona Lisa's personality in one glance, one is left with a sense of mystery. Now you see this, and then you see something else, leaving the observer confused.
Image of Mona Lisa

So what do we see? According to Da Vinci's biographer Vasari, the artist had hired clowns, singers and bell-ringers in order to amuse Mona Lisa so that she wouldn't get depressed or bored. It's hard to believe that such a stately portrait would result from such a strange undertaking, but Mona Lisa certainly looks amused. Her sovereignty is another thing that catches the eye. As a high class lady she would certainly be expected to be confident, a mental condition which is all the more convincing if it is entertained in a relaxed manner; the mellowness of the painting is striking, one can hardly imagine it having been surrounded by fools and jesters, as suggested above. It's a small step from sovereignty to irony and the latter is discernible too, look at her right eye (left on the picture). The mouth often tells the truth about a person, and Mona Lisa's suggests balance, in mood and in personality. This is a woman that is young, but displays a calm and sobriety normally associated with an elderly person. Then again, if you look at her differently, you see a young girl with her somewhat inflated left cheek (right on the picture) and her good-humoured left eye (ditto). The way she lets her curly hair hang down on her chest and shoulders seems like an attempt to attract the opposite sex, and by it's manner definitely to be associated with a young woman, while her dress is again very sober.
All this and more was Da Vinci able to put into one artwork and there are many such examples. Vasari's claim about the circus activities to amuse Mona Lisa seems unlikely. More likely is that Mona Lisa and Da Vinci had a special rapport: they liked each other. She could look him straight in the eye and feel comfortable. And he could paint this uncomplicated person in a very direct way. None of her many sides revealed anything disturbing to him, a "tète á tète" that changed the world of art. leonardo-da-vinci.paintings.name
Da Vinci's self portraitself portrait


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