There's Something About Lisa

Just about everyone knows the Mona Lisa—it's the painting for which Leonardo da Vinci is, perhaps, most famous. Completed in 1506, this work of art went through a number of iterations before the design and execution were finally finished. What is it about this particular piece that has created such a lasting impact on the artistic world?

The subject of the Mona Lisa was most likely the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. A silk merchant in the late fifteenth century, Giocondo was also involved with the government in Florence, and he and his wife Lisa were probably married around 1495.


The portrait poses Lisa as a pyramidal foreground to a distant, somewhat foggy landscape in the background. The glow on her chest radiates to include her face and hands, creating a softness not previously seen in Renaissance painting. This painting was much smaller than many of Leonardo's other works. It measures approximately 30” × 40” and consists of oil paint on a wooden panel.

With the Mona Lisa, Leonardo made profound use of the techniques he had developed throughout the Renaissance. The soft transitions between colors (sfumato) create a fully realistic three-dimensional figure with amazing modeling of the skin. Leonardo used the same techniques in the background—the sky and water complement each other perfectly. Similarly, the use of contrasting light for shade and shadow (chiaroscuro) creates a connection between the curves of Lisa's face and hair, and the mountains behind her.

The expression on this Florentine woman's face is one of the painting's most exceptional features, with her simple, dark clothing making her face the real focus. Her smile appears to be at once both innocent and enticing. One account describes how Leonardo had to hire musicians and mimes to amuse Lisa during the sitting—after all, three years is a long time to pose! The entertainment could provide one explanation for Lisa's slight smile. Also significant about Lisa's expression is that one eye is slightly higher than the other, increasing the sense of movement in the painting.

If you've ever seen the Mona Lisa in person, you probably know that her eyes seem to follow you around the room. Leonardo probably created this effect on purpose. The corners of the mouth and eyes are the most expressive parts of the human face, and Leonardo did not over-define these parts of the Mona Lisa. Instead, they are highly shadowed and almost vague, causing her expression to appear to change depending on the viewer's perspective.

While it appears that the figure of Lisa is floating in front of the landscape, in the original painting she was actually standing in between two columns, probably on a porch or balcony. Because these elements were removed from the final version, viewers today cannot experience the painting as it was initially intended.

Although women of the day usually had portraits painted while they were dressed in their finest, Lisa is dressed quite simply. She's not wearing any elaborate jewelry or a fancy dress. One theory behind Mona Lisa's everyday outfit is that Leonardo didn't want to detract from the pure lines he was creating. Her simple, dark clothing makes her face the real focus of the painting.

Mona Lisa on the Road

Like Leonardo himself, the Mona Lisa did plenty of traveling. Leonardo carried it with him to France during his tenure under King François I. At the end of his life he either gave or sold it to the King, and it ended up in the Louvre. Napoleon borrowed the painting for a period, and it was hidden during the Franco-Prussian War to ensure it wasn't damaged. In 1911, a Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia stole the painting and then tried to sell it, but he was captured and the artwork was returned to the Louvre in 1913.

The Mona Lisa was hidden again during World Wars I and II. Then, it toured various countries (including the United States) during the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, due to security concerns, it's unlikely that it will leave the Louvre again any time soon. At present, it resides in the museum behind bulletproof glass in a climate-controlled enclosure.

Ultimately, everything about this work of art is subject to interpretation. Try as historians might, no one will ever know exactly how Leonardo intended for his work to be viewed; it remains a mystery. And that is precisely why it is so famous: Ten people can study this painting and come away with ten different experiences every time.

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