This essay is devoted to a masterpiece by the hand of one of the greatest artist this world has seen, The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. The intent is to address the story behind this painting, trying to unveil some of the mysteries that lie behind her smile or at least the reason of the commission to begin with.
The artistic methods and especially the more specific description of the uniqueness of the Mona Lisa will be a focal point of the text. The portrait was painted in a theme, well known in the early sixteenth century, the differences however, both prominent and subtle; make this artwork, in the opinion of many, the Magnum Opus of Leonardo Da Vinci.
My choice of subject lies in my personal encounter with her when visiting Paris, France. The expectations I had were of course very high, 'la piece du resistance' of the Louvre must have something very special to offer. Still I told myself that the hype around this painting must have been more important in reaching her current status than the actual beauty of the painting.
To my great astonishing I must confess that even from the distance visitors have to keep from the painting, she was amazing. It is difficult to imagine that such an ordinary portrait to the lay mans eye, can still captivate and inspire it. After about ten minutes of staring at the painting, being surrounded by Japanese tourists, I left inebriated with the Mona Lisa and finally understood the publicity surrounding her.
Therefore I have written this essay.
In first appearance it seems quite remarkable and perhaps even odd, that Leonardo Da Vinci did not want to work for the margravine of Mantua, even though he was allowed to choose the setting in which the portrait would take place, as well as the delivery date. Apparently Leonardo lived off of the savings he had transferred to his account in Florence before leaving Milan. He seemed to prefer the scientific studies that did not generate any income and which were frowned upon by the people who lived in his age. In the light of this event it is even more remarkable that Leonardo decided to work per order of Francesco Del Giocondo (1460-1539) in the spring of 1503, to make a portrait of his wife Lisa Gherardini (1479-after 1551?). This portrait would later be known by the name of the 'Mona Lisa'. The reason for this remarkable decision by Leonardo could be that he had a personal relationship with the Giocondo family. The family Giocondo belonged to the same social class as Leonardo and his father Ser Piero. Da Vinci knew people who had close relationships with Francesco Del Giocondo.
Even more so, was the family-chapel of the Giocondo family located in the SS. Annunziata in Florence, the church for which Leonardo started with his cardboard with the Anna...
The circumstances in which the Mona Lisa was created are relatively well known. Lisa del Giocondo was born in 1479 as the daughter of Antonmaria Gherardini and was married on the fifth of march 1495to Francesco Del Giocondo, born in 1460 and a son of the prospering Florentine family of silk merchants. It is safe to assume that this man, in contradiction to the margavine of Matua, not ordered this painting in the spur of the moment if you will, but usually had clear motives to make such an investment. This also holds for the Mona Lisa. Francesco Del Giocondo had bought a new home for its young family, in the spring of 1503. Lisa had given birth to her second son Andrea only several months before that, this was considered a good reason to order a portrait in the Florence of the fifteenth and sixteenth century A.D., even more so because the birth of their son Andrea must have had a very important significance, since the child mortality rates were frighteningly high in that period.
Lisa Gherardini was the third woman to be wedded to Francesco Del Giocondo, after the tragic deaths of both his first and second wife. Both losses were due to child birth, either during the delivery itself or shortly after. Lisa had given birth to their son Piero in 1496, and apparently she got through pregnancy and births relatively care free. The unfortunate event of losing a daughter during birth in 1499 caused a major blow to the Giocondo family. It is therefore understandable that Francesco had even more motivation to eternalize his spouse than the average well off business man, when taking his previous experiences into account that caused a lot of hardship. The peculiar fact of the matter is that the portrait actually never reached its destination, since several years later around 1510, Leonardo Da Vinci was no longer residing in the city of 'Firenze' as the Italians call it.
Leonardo based his formal composition of the portrait of Lisa Giocondo in first instance on the examples of Florentine portraits of the late fourteen hundreds. The woman is pictured turning her upper body for approximately two-third to the spectator. Another feature often recognizable for portraits of this region and period are the pillars between the back-country is visible which creates a greater sense of depth and distance; this however is not used by Leonardo Da Vinci in this particular painting.
The figure portrayed in the Mona Lisa is positioned more to the front of the frame than Flemish examples of the same period. The smaller distance between the viewer and the woman portrayed creates an intensified impression, while the landscape on the background creates a large sense of depth, the lack of pillars or a window through which the spectator looks seems a daring decision of Leonardo, the result simply astonishing.
Mountains and canyons fade away as they get closer to the horizon into a blue-green sky. In the pale landscape there is a road on the left and a dried-up riverbed on the right can be detected once observing closely. The water reserve or lake on the left side of the painting, around the height of her chin does not seem to be connected to the riverbed, one would expect there to be some sort of dried up reserve on the upper right beyond the limits of the painting. The separate elements of the dry landscape can be traced back to the religious paintings often portraying the Virgin Mary, the similarities between those pieces of art and the Mona Lisa are striking in several ways, most likely intentional. It was common in for woman of good descent to be depicted as a virtuous and beautiful, what better way than to depict one in a similar matter as the most virtuous and beautiful of all. The positioning of the hands are a symbol of a virtuous and morally upright lifestyle, such as described in books written in that period. This message hidden in the details by the artist does not end here: a very delicate veil covers the loosely draped hair; the dark dress is enriched by the embroideries and vertical folds in the fabric; the dark yellow colored sleeves have a light glistening quality makes it look more beautiful, these details enrich the delicate character of the painting, associated with the example of 'a virtues woman'.
The face and hands in particular are made more tangible by the use of lighting and shades, the light that shines from the back onto the woman makes her stand out even more.
The first tread towards the disclosure of the artistic nature of the Mona Lisa, the careful analysis of the noun 'art' should be conducted in order to elucidate the basis of the argumentation. The Cambridge dictionary defines art as "The making of objects, images, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings". The immediate hurdle one finds when analyzing this sentence is the fundamental question which is: 'what is beauty?'Before stepping foot in this exceptionally complicated matter I will take into account a number of theories that have been formulated on the matter.
Marie-Henri Beyle was a writer who lived in nineteenth century France, he is better known by his pseudonym 'Stendhal'. The following translated quotation taken from his work 'De L'Amour' of 1822 gives an interesting take on the matter of 'beauty': "Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness". The French original states: "La beaut n'est que la promesse du Bonheur. (De L'Amour, 1822, pg. 34) The context in which this sentence is placed is important in order to fully appreciate the message of Stendhal, for he mentions the differences in the standards different nationals have, concerning attractiveness of woman, therefore beauty.
The words by Marie-Henri Beyle could make a person wonder whether a certain work of art indeed promises happiness of some kind, for instance the Mona Lisa. The fascination people have for this painting, mere observers and even her creator himself, shows the level of interest or even intoxication the painting has on people. If the human kind is constantly trying to improve its life, in other words; trying to find 'happiness', than the fascination so many people have for the Mona Lisa should be counted as evidence of her beauty. Therefore the sentence "Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness" seems applicable to the Mona Lisa.
The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth draws different conclusions concerning beauty than Beyle; the scientific approach used by the former is especially significant, because it is the first scientific and empirical research on the subject of beauty. The subtitle describes the aim of the author "With a view of fixing the fluctuating ideas of taste".
William Hogarth used the picture portrayed below and asked his subjects to tell him which corset of one up to and including seven, they perceived as the most beautiful corset.
Before conducting the research he states that he is sure that most of the subjects will choose one of the middle three corsets, his personal favorite is number four, the one in the middle. The reason he gives is that the numbers higher than four are too curved and the numbers lower are too rigid or straight. Similar questions are asked when using different examples such as noses and even table legs. The results show that indeed the middle option is chosen most often by his subjects, confirming his earlier belief. The reason why one chooses for the middle option, according to Hogarth, is that the most beautiful picture in all cases consists of light curved lines. These lines can be found in nature, for instance if one would take a ribbon and start from the back of a woman's neck and end at the lowest part of the corset, the fabric would draw a light curved line. The more this perfect line is approached in curviness the more beautiful it becomes, the farther away from it she goes, the less beautiful it becomes. His theory as to why this phenomenon occurs is psychological; he believed that the human mind has developed in such a way that it likes variation. Human beings like change because it stimulates them, too much or too rapid change however is confusing and exhausting. As a reaction to this, people look for regularity as a form of relief, but too much uniformity becomes tiresome an obnoxious. That is the reason why most pleasant things both reward our longing for variation and our need for uniformity, the beauty is in the balance. The curved line drawn on the cover of his book is exactly that balance, according to Hogarth.
The line that has the perfect variety, as portrayed above inside of the pyramid, has been implemented by me in order to see whether or not the Mona Lisa of Leonardo Da Vinci has the perfect curve that would explain the beauty of the painting, or vice versa; prove the painting to be beautiful according to Hogarth. The line starts at her right wrist, following the natural position f her arm. The slight curve starts a bit above her elbow and it straightens out, near the ending of her right breast, seeing as one follows the red line from bottom to top. The second curve is inspired by the shadow that the artist has added to her face, serving as a boundary if you will. The cheekbone is quite prominent at the left side of her face, therefore strengthening the motive to draw the line there. The last part simply follows the shape of her head, of course taking into account that her hair increases the volume quite a bit.
"The making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings", "The activity of painting, drawing and making sculpture", "Paintings, drawings and sculptures", "An activity through which people express particular ideas".
It might seem like an odd way of determining the artistic nature of a painting: using the formal definition of the word 'art' as a starting point. Nevertheless, in order to establish a solid argumentation I find it of vital importance to use an unyielding basis to reflect on such an elusive subject.
The painting of Lisa Giocondo is, by definition, art. The most important issue that needs to be addressed however is not whether or not this painting can be defined in such a way. This piece of art is such a global icon, for in some, perhaps indescribable manner, it inspires and captivates people. When one thinks of art, an image that is not unlikely to appear is that of this very woman, therefore the following bold statement could be made that: the Mona Lisa is not only a magnificent piece of art, or can be defined in such a way: it has defined art itself.
- Marie-Henri Beyle De L'Amour (On Love) (1822), Ch. 17, footnote