Leonardo da Vinci, 1503, Italian Renaissance (tempera and oil on wood)
Louvre, Paris, France
No study of famous art would be complete without a look at what is arguably the most famous painting in the world: the Mona Lisa–and her famous smile!
Louvre side note: I just read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (January 27, 2021; Liz Alderman, NY Times) about how the Louvre Museum (Mona Lisa’s home base) is making lemonade out of the COVID lemons and doing extensive renovations in the empty galleries during the longest museum closing since World War II. The article states that “a small army of around 250 artisans has been working [full time] since France’s latest lockdown went into effect Oct. 30. . . to complete major renovations. . . and introduce new beatifications by mid-February” to be ready for re-opening and welcoming back the public. Mona Lisa got a redo a few years ago, so she’s ready to accept her adoring fans. TRAVELER TIP: Travel restrictions have slashed the number of visitors; the museum will limit entry to ticket holders with reservations to meet health protocols. So PLAN AHEAD! https://www.louvre.fr/en
Described as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world,” the Mona Lisa, by Italian Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci, it is an archetypal masterpiece of the era.
Mona Lisa has resided at the Louvre in Paris, France, since 1797 where she is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Today, with social distancing and shutdowns in place during the pandemic, we get a rare glimpse of the Mona Lisa smiling to an empty room.
Tiny in stature at only 2’6″ x 1’9″, its size is always the first thing that takes her viewers by surprise, even if they have been forewarned.
What Mona Lisa sees. . . On what do the roaming eyes of Mona Lisa gaze when she is not looking out at her admiring fans? I would like to argue that it is a much more spectacular view than that provided by Mona Lisa herself!
The sumptuous “Wedding Feast at Cana” by Pablo Veronese, is on the wall across from her. This huge (22′ x 32′) Mannerist style oil painting on canvas is based on the biblical account of Jesus first miracle, turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). Don’t miss it; take time to enjoy its magnificent detail and colorful characters while you are waiting in line to see “the Lady” herself!
TRAVELER’S TIPS: Arrive as soon as the museum opens and make her your first stop to avoid the crowds that are guaranteed to arrive to view this icon of the Louvre Museum. Where is the Mona Lisa located? Head to the Paintings Department, Denon Wing, Room 6. Can you take a photo of her? Yes, but no flash, and no professional shots (no tripods or special lighting). But selfies? Go for it! NOTE: Due to COVID pandemic, travel restrictions have slashed the number of visitors, the museum will limit entry to ticket holders with reservations to meet health protocols. So PLAN AHEAD! https://www.louvre.fr/en
Who is Mona Lisa? There is no doubt that the mystery of the Mona Lisa is at least partially what has made it–and her–so famous. But a who she? Several stories have been eluded to over the past 500 years since she was painted.
The most popular story, backed by Giorgio Vasari, renowned biographer of artists (1500s), is that it was commissioned by a wealthy Florentine silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. After having been twice widowed, in 1495, he married a young woman named Lisa Di Antonio Maria Gherardini, hence “Mona (Italian contraction of ma donna) Lisa.” It is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea.
A second story is that it was painted by Leonardo who brought it with him to France. History books mention a nameless female portrait that was with Leonardo when he stayed at Clos Lucé castle (also known as the Manoir du Cloux) near to the Loire Château of Amboise. After his death, it remained with the royal collections, was exhibited at the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, and eventually became part of the collection of the Louvre.
Another, much less popular, theory is that the young woman in the picture is of a mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, ruler of the Republic of Florence.
The theory that I find the most intriguing is that she, at least her enigmatic smile, is a portrait Leonardo painted of his mother from whom he was separated as a very young boy. Her identity is shrouded in mystery as well. Raised in the custody of his father, a Florentine lawyer, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of what is thought to be a 15 year old young woman; a peasant, an orphan or maybe even a slave.
Who is Mona Lisa? The mystery remains unsolved.
Whoever she may have been, her portrait was Leonardo’s favorite painting and remained with him until his death in 1519. It never ended up in the del Giocondo home, or the home of anyone else for that matter; rather, Mona Lisa went on to live an intriguing, exciting, and very regal life!
- Her origins were between 1503-07, when the majority of the painting was completed in Italy.
- In 1517, at the French king’s invitation, Leonardo and the Mona Lisa moved to France, where they lived and he continued to work on her until his death, adding bits and pieces to the painting now and then.
- In 1519, upon the death of Leonardo, the painting was inherited by the artist’s assistant who then sold it to France’s King Francis I for 4,000 gold coins.
- She remained in royal company at the Palace at Fontainebleau for several hundred years.
- Sometime during the reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715), Mona Lisa moved to the opulence of the Palace of Versailles.
- During the French Revolution (c. 1789), she was moved to the safety of Paris.
- The Louvre Museum opened in 1793 and provided her with a place of sanctity.
- In 1800 she hung in the bedroom of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Tuileries (next to the Louvre).
- In 1804, Mona Lisa was officially installed in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre.
- In 1911, she was stolen from the Louvre (see details below) and went missing with reportedly very intriguing adventures, until she returned to back to her spot in the Louvre in 1914.
- For the past 100+ years, Mona Lisa has lived a rather predicable life under heavy guard at the Louvre.
She did get to experience some world travel in 1963 with a tour to the USA (New York and Washington, D.C.), and to Tokyo, Japan and Moscow, Russia, in 1974.
Source of above details, plus many more interesting tidbits, can found at the PBS website: https://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/mona_lisa/mlevel_1/mtimeline.html
Another great website and great source is: https://www.pariscityvision.com/en/paris/museums/louvre-museum/the-mona-lisa-history-and-mystery
Mona Lisa’s smile is an additional mystery and remains an ongoing topic of discussion. Enigmatic facial expressions–especially smiles–are something of a Leonardo trademark.
According to researchers, because of its asymmetry, it is non-genuine; using mirror images, one half of her smile displays happiness while the other half is neutral reflecting a non-genuine emotion. It is also said that musicians and/or jesters were hired to entertain her and keep her smile intact during the sitting.
The result is what is infamously known as a “Mona Lisa Smile.”
The eyes of Mona Lisa are mesmerizing. No matter where you stand, you feels as if you are being watched. . . followed. . . by Mona Lisa’s attentive eyes. Leonardo’s spectacular scientific and anatomical knowledge is clearly demonstrated here as optical effects are created by the position of her eyes.
The composition technique of the painting makes it one of the most studied works in the history of art and by apprentice artists. It is highly regarded for its modern framing as a portrait that could be painted now.
Today, portraits of people posed in front of scenic landscapes is common practice. Not so in 1500. Medieval artwork (500-1450) was flat; figures were like paper dolls, neatly stacked one in front of another. Backgrounds were also flat with no sense of perspective.
The Renaissance, along with movement and shape, brought backgrounds that were alive with depth and perspective. Mona Lisa is seated amidst a masterpiece of topographical depth, perspective, and intrigue; revealing Leonardo’s fascination and skill with geological forms.
Mona Lisa is one wealthy lady! Guinness World Records lists Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as having the highest ever insurance value for a painting. On December 14, 1962, the Mona Lisa was assessed at $100 million. Taking inflation into account, the 1962 value would be around $850 million in 2019.
Mona Lisa goes Missing – On Aug. 21, 1911, the then-little-known painting titled “Mona Lisa” was stolen from the wall of the Louvre in Paris. That morning, before the Louvre opened, thieves slipped out of their overnight hiding place in a closet, they lifted 200 pounds of painting off of the wall, including the frame and protective glass and simply walked out. The media went crazy! Who could have stolen the painting? Why? And–how? After several years, the painting was discovered. The guilty party was an overly nationalistic Italian, Vincenzo Peruggia, who felt it should be it Italy where Leonardo first painted it; he had stolen it with the intent to return the work to his home country.
In 1919, Marcel Duchamp used the portrait of Mona Lisa as the basis for his own version. He wrote the letters “LHOOQ” along the bottom, like “look” in English, but when each letter is read out loud in French, it makes a inappropriate joke.
Numerous parodies of this famous lady have been created over the decades; one can still see her gracing media ads today!
Popular Culture Embraces Mona Lisa: 2003
The Mona Lisa is the focus of one of the mysteries in the 2003 publication of the international crime bestseller, The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It sold more than 80 million copies and gave a new dimension and notoriety to the the painting and other works by Leonardo at the Louvre.