Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (1503–1505/07), Louvre, Paris. (Public Domain)

Among Leonardo Da Vinci ‘s outstanding collection, the “Mona Lisa” is deemed to be the most special one with a uniquely enchanting smile and other unresolved features.

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (1512-1515) . (Public Domain)

Motive of the work

When it comes to the reason for the birth of the painting, it was said that Da Vinci created this work out of his jealousy for the popularity of “David,” the work of his young rival—Michelangelo. And he was, thus, determined to produce one of matched reputation.

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (1512-1515) . (Public Domain)

Regardless of what the truth is behind the purpose, Da Vinci truly treasured this work, always carrying it with him. When he died, all of his works became part of the collections of the Louvre museum, including the “Mona Lisa.”

“Mona Lisa” short for Madonna Lisa, is a portrait featuring the wife of the French merchant—Francesco di Bartholomeo del Giocondo. It, thus, was also known as “Lady Giocondo” (La Gioconda). The woman in the painting appears in the scenery coined by Da Vinci, in Florence’s fashionable clothes, with her arms crossed elegantly. She looks straight at the audience with a light smile and deep look. The art critic Vasari described this mysterious smile as “inhuman.” In fact, this smile has confused many art critics and historians for centuries.

Expression techniques

The “Mona Lisa” has been held in extremely high esteem, as a typical portrait style of the Renaissance. The artist and biographer Vasari believed that the “Mona Lisa” was a product of the realistic school and has reached its pinnacle. Indeed, from a technical perspective, the portraying of Da Vinci’s subject has reached the point of flawlessness and perfection: from capturing shapes (structural proportions, textures, lights and shadows) to its inner features, it is no overstatement to say that the work looks true to life. In particular, Da Vinci used Sfumato to blend color and tones to create a veil of smoke.

Da Vinci is deemed as sfumato’s greatest exponent, as exemplified in the portrait of “Mona Lisa.” With this technique, facial features including the cheekbones, the mouth corner, and eye corner, etc.., and smile is rendered with the type of extremely gentle shading, producing an unpredictable expression.

Mysterious smile

The smile in Da Vinci’s works was not uncommon; but in the early days, except for the “Benois Madonna,” most of those expressions were somewhat concealed, under the delicate light and shade of the facial muscles. For instance, the facial features, the blurred smile, and facial composure of the Holy Maria and the Angels in “The Madonna of the Rocks,” manifested the loving motherhood.

Left: The real smile of the Holy Maria in the “Benois Madonna”—one of the earliest works by Da Vinci. Right: “The Madonna of the Rocks.” (Wikipedia/Public Domain)

During his last years of life, Leonardo Da Vinci seemingly put all his energy into portraying his ideal everlasting smile. From the sketch of “Santa Ana” and a few sketches of other characters, the typical smile that Da Vinci would feature: A gentle and serene female face, with eyelids cast down with a benevolent air, cheekbones slightly protruding and shallow and elegant dimples with a slight smile.

Although “Mona Lisa” follows the same mode, it triggers from viewers different emotions. The character looked straight into the eyes of the audience. When their eyes meet, the character’s gaze looks so lively that in the gloomy background of the painting, it would accidentally deliver a somewhat insecure feeling.

(Public Domain)

The ambiguous light and shade play a role in producing various facial expressions when looked from different angles.

At first glance, it appears to be a sociable and composed one. A more careful look shows that, it radiates an air of ambiguity and ambition, a mix of somewhat nobleness, conceitedness, and disdain. Thus, for centuries, Mona Lisa’s smile has been deemed as unique and enchanting with the incorporation of different opposite traits, turning it into the most elusive feature of all.

British art critic Walter Pater, in his 1867 essay on “Mona Lisa,” described it as follows: “All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary.”

It then poses a question—what was Leonardo Da Vinci’s emotional state when creating this work and how could “Mona Lisa” be so different from his other characters?

A unique smile

Naturally, if Leonardo Da Vinci really painted a “Mona Lisa” out of jealousy and competitiveness with Michelangelo, the composition would also trigger negative and impure effects.

From another angle, it is commonly believed that a portrait carries with it the mentality and emotional state of both the subject and the painter. It is, thus, no wonder why the Mona Lisa triggered such different emotions. It naturally, stands in stark contrast to his paintings of Jesus Christ, Virgin Maria and the angels, which are imbued with compassion and purity, that can make the righteousness and composure of the audiences come forth.

Recently, modern art critics and historians have attributed the mysterious smile of “Mona Lisa” to the technique of putting layers upon layers that was used by Da Vinci.

No matter what the assumptions are, the Mona Lisa’s smile still remains one of the most controversial subjects in the art community. And it just adds more allure to the painting itself.

(Public Domain)

The ironic fate of the painting “Mona Lisa”

After the portrait was complete, it immediately became popular, but it has also many times fallen victim to “robberies.” In 1911, the “Mona Lisa” was stolen by an Italian worker, Vicenzo Perrugia, from the Louvre Museum Carée’s lounge. In 1913, the “Mona Lisa” was found in Florence.

After being displayed at the Uffizi Gallery, it made its way through Rome and Milan, and finally returned to Paris in December of the same year. In 1956, a mentally ill man threw acid into this famous painting. In 1960, someone maliciously cut the portrait. Today, after the “Mona Lisa” was recovered, it is being protected behind a special bulletproof glass. In 1980, France introduced a law banning it from leaving France, which showed how much the world values this work.

Paris, France – July 01, 2017: Visitors take photo of Leonardo DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre Museum. The painting is one of the world’s most famous. (Shutterstock)

Many people think that the “Mona Lisa” represents the typical beauty of an elegant and dignified woman, with wisdom and confidence. However, due to her popularity, this “model” was frequently imitated and copied. She has often become a symbol of aesthetics, philosophy, or even to advertised goods. In modern art, she was even transformed to a ridiculous and surrealistic image. Very few classical works of art that have been so cultivated and admired were distorted by humans like the “Mona Lisa” and this demonstrated again the contradictory nature of the work itself!