“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
When it comes to celebrity status in art there is no doubt that Leonardo da Vinci’s five hundred-year-old masterpiece can’t be beaten. The Mona Lisa, or La Giaconda is a portrait of a Florentine woman, presumably Madonna Lisa di Antonia Maria Gherardini. It has been reproduced, replicated, written about, analyzed, appropriated (notably by Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat) and studied over and over again. But one has yet to find a concrete clue to her mysterious smile and to decisively solve her identity.
What is known is that the portrait was a commissioned work that Leonardo never finished and took away with him to France where he spent his last days at the court of King Francis I. What was so special about this painting to Leonardo that he didn’t want to part with it?
Leonardo was a true genius, an adventurous inventor and, most importantly, a great philosopher. He didn’t limit himself to a mere formal resemblance in his portraiture; rather he was seeking a way to depict a state of mind of his model – hence Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile and mysterious gaze. Pay attention to her modest dress and complete absence of jewelry, which typically generously adorns models in Renaissance portraits. Her appearance exudes humility and urges you to contemplate her beauty as a metaphor for something more eternal and profound than a mere representation of a beautiful woman.
In addition to his unique approach to depicting a personality of the model, Leonardo da Vinci revolutionized the painterly techniques and changed the conventions of the time (early 16th century). He developed the “sfumato” technique, which the artist himself described as ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’. Take note of the woman’s lips – there is no distinct outline. As your eyes are moving around the painting and you observe the smile with peripheral vision, it is constantly transforming if though her lips are moving and the smile is slowly disappearing. Da Vinci started with darker tones that he consequently covered with layers of semi-transparent lighter shades achieving the illusion of three-dimensional features. Consequently, sfumato would be used by Rafael and Giorgione. Another Leonardo’s queer innovation was the imaginative mountain landscape in the background that was in defiance of a traditional monotone background, a room or an open sky.
The fact that the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1913 (by an Italian who wished to return it to its homeland) added to its fame and value. The painting was soon returned and in 1962, before it toured the United States for several months, it was valued at $100 million for insurance purposes. Adjusted for inflation the estimated insurance value of the Mona Lisa today is approximately $700 million putting it on top of the list of the most expensive paintings.
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