About the section
A weekly column published in the Wall Street Journal. Experts analyze masterpieces from the fields of literature, cinema, music, art and architecture
James Gardner is an American literary and art critic
The reaction of most tourists when they first see the Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci is disappointment. Those who are quoted to them, when they stand and look at it, will soon hear the question that everyone says in their hearts: what is the big deal?
Amen: Leonardo da Vinci
Production date: 1507
technique: oil on wood
Dimensions: 53 cm (width), 77 cm (height)
Location: The Louvre Museum in Paris
Who was the model for the painting?
Why did this painting, which apparently commemorates the portrait of Liza Girardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant from Florence, take on such a unique and prominent status in culture? Several factors are behind his mythical weight. If the painting had hung in the Prado Museum in Madrid or the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, it would never have reached the status it has today. Of course they would have appreciated his qualities, but perhaps in a similar way to “The Lady with the Harmine” painted by Leonardo da Vinci, which today hangs in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.
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But the Mona Lisa painting hangs in honor in the Louvre Museum in Paris, which for more than 100 years was the center of Western art. It entered the museum’s collection around 1516, when King Francois I of France invited da Vinci to his palace in Amboise, France.
The importance of Paris and its art critics were only some of the factors. It also helped that da Vinci was a man without parallels in the history of art. A man of many works and an inventor, who gained the aura of a sorcerer in his lifetime. All his works also have an aura of holiness. And there’s another thing: technically it’s a great work of art. But is it really that obvious? Well, it could have been, if we could still see her. Unfortunately, like the dollar bill or the American flag, it has become so familiar that we no longer really see it at all.
The mysteries of the painting model
But if you ever manage to see the painting as people in previous centuries saw it, you’ll discover something amazing: the Mona Lisa looks completely different than we’ve been led to believe. For many, it is a first-rate masterpiece, the foundation of our entire visual culture, the cartoon equivalent of the Parthenon in Athens, the Chartres Cathedral in Paris or the Taj Mahal in Agra. In practice, it’s not even close. This is an elusive, mysterious and changing painting, and it is exactly the ambivalence that captured the attention of everyone who saw it in the past.
Most portraits, by their very nature, convey one simple idea: they preserve the unique appearance of the people immortalized in them and at the same time try to make them conform to a general type – whether it is a type of beauty, status or religious piety. What is special about the Mona Lisa painting is that three different portraits exist in it at the same time.
The first is the most common portrait – a woman in the Renaissance. This is a beautiful and desirable woman, smiling at the viewer. But if we look more closely, her expression becomes one of sadness, even pain, something that is very different from the portraits of the period. And as soon as we grasp this impression, another impression rushes in its wake: a sense of nightmarish menace that caused Walter Peter, the 19th-century British writer and essayist, to declare in a famous text that “the Mona Lisa is older than the rocks among which she is depicted; like a vampire, she has died many times.” and learned the secrets of the grave.”
It is not only about her beauty and sadness, but also about the hints of violence that so fascinated the critics of the 19th century. This is why the French philosopher, historian and writer Jules Michel wrote: “This fabric attracts me, fascinates me, invades me and absorbs me. And I go to it in spite of myself, as the bird comes to the snake.” All these qualities are there, and they are visible only to those who tear away the veil of convention that covers it.
What is perhaps most striking about the painting is its strong originality. There is not a single portrait from this period, perhaps only one or two other Da Vinci paintings, that capture such an intense and suffocating atmosphere. We can only wonder what prompted Da Vinci to paint this young woman against a backdrop of underwater horror, with ancient, winding rivers and sharp cliffs.
The anatomy of the drawing model
Like most portraits from that period, and like most portraits painted by Da Vinci, in the Mona Lisa painting the woman is sitting with her upper body exposed. Her face is a strange compromise between the general and the unique. The face expresses an unparalleled naturalism, but also an androgyny, one that also recurs in other paintings by da Vinci “The Madonna between the Rocks” and “John the Baptist”.
The eyes are also drawn to the anatomical perfection of the hands and cleavage. These hands embody the scientific naturalism that began with Lombard art at the end of the 14th century (a movement in art that developed in the Renaissance that combined realism and the study of nature). About a century after Da Vinci, scientific naturalism would be revived by Caravaggio and the painters influenced by him.
But if da Vinci absorbed this naturalism during his many years in Milan, his mastery of perspective, as shown in the Mona Lisa painting, is influenced by Tuscan artists. The old Da Vinci returns to his youth and to those Tuscan artists who were old when he was young: Paolo Occello, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca.
If the generation after Da Vinci grasped perspective intuitively, the generation before him based it on mathematical science. This was also the way Vinci saw her. In his hands, the science of perspective reached its final and most wonderful flowering.