The painting shows a woman slightly turned to the left, with long curly locks, gazing at the viewer with a faint smile, as she delicately rests her hands one on top of the other, as her left forearm rests on the chair. She is wearing a transparent veil, and a draped fabric crosses over her left shoulder and her dark gown with ocher sleeves. Between the figure in the foreground and the landscape in the background, are two small pillars, one on each side. In the landscape, a twisting road pierces the rocky mountains, a body of water appear on behind it, and ends by the rough mountains, on the left, a bridge crosses over a dried-up river bed at the right, and as the landscape stretches out further to the horizon with another range of icy mountains, its colours fade from warm terracottas into cold hues of blue, as it reaches up to the clear blue sky.
An enigmatic tale of a woman that seems to belong in an imaginary and intangible world of both civilization and nature; specific iconography suggests ideals connected with beauty, fertility and nature, representing the universal archetype of humankind.
Widely considered one of Leonardo’s key masterpieces, the Mona Lisa is one of the prime examples of the High Renaissance; her smile still causes a global fascination compelling millions of people every year; the Mona Lisa is a living Icon, widely considered to be the most admired painting, the world’s most recognizable work of art and it is the most reproduced image in all art.
Although there are no accountable records, it is generally believed that Leonardo accepted a commission, in 1503, by Francesco del Giocondo (1460-1539), to paint a portrait of his wife, Lisa Gherardini (1479-1551), in order to celebrate the successful delivery of their second child, Andrea.
This iconic elusive smile is enhanced by the brightly lit face which is framed by a combination of darker elements (the hair, the veil, the shadows, the muted background and the dark clothes). According to research on perception and neurology, people’s interpretation of the enigmatic expression can shift from pleasant or not, based on the viewers own emotions at the time. Because of this, journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson considers the work of art as “(…) the greatest emotional painting ever done. The way the smile flickers makes it a work of both art and science”. It creates a neutral expression which is open ended of interpretation, allowing for the projection of the viewers own emotional universe, and it has been fascinating viewers since the time it was created; at the time, Vasari claimed: “the smile was so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human”.
It is believed that Da Vinci actually signed this work in a very clever way, by choosing the lion’s colour, called Leonato at the time, and drawing the embroidery of vincere’s knot (Vinci’s Knot) on the neckline of the gown – barely visible to the naked eye.
The painting has a strong compositional structure, based on the classical pyramidal shape pose, which exudes a very stable presence; adding to this, the clear use of the rule of thirds (both vertically and horizontally) establishes a very harmonious code; strong geometrical sub-grids (in both a micro and macro scale) can be found throughout the work, further adding to solid compositional structure of the work.
Golden Ratio diagram 1
Golden Ratio diagram 2
Study of the proportions of the human face (second half of 15th century)
The composition is greatly characterised by a very specific use of color that uses harmonious opposing hues of warm and cool colours to create the illusion of life: the colour palette is unsaturated, and is marked by its low intensity, with little variations in tonalities; the overall earthy tonality of the painting is set by the use of terracottas, olive greens and soft blues; a fundamental aspect to note is that the yellowish tint over most of the painting is due to the yellow varnish, which distorts the colour, producing, for example, a greenish-blue sky; the rich color of the skin is partly derived from the painting process of soft glazes, making the skin show natural flesh tones.
The painting is a reinterpretation of older conventions, specially the formal Florentine portraiture vocabulary of the 15th century. The three quarter view of the figure was used by other painters of the time like Master of Spirito Santo and Lorenzo di Credi, and previously by Jan van Eyck; although it was not new to painting, Leonardo reinterpreted it – using this as a mechanism to intensify the enigmatic nature of the figure, further concealing and adding illusions, specially the pregnancy which is greatly left puzzling the viewer due to the position of the subject. Furthermore, the idealized non-referential landscape, the architectural setting/framing and the joining of the hands, are all innovation factors in Italian portraiture.
Portrait of Caterina Sforza (1481-1483), Lorenzo di Credi