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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Painting of the Month (57): Sept 2015 Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mona Lisa c1503 - 1507. The Louvre, Paris.
No photograph could do it justice.
Probably the most famous painting of all time Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic painting of The Mona Lisa is a relatively small picture measuring only 30 x 21 inches. Why is it so famous? Well it’s not for nothing! Let’s start with some history; Madonna Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini was the wife of the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo (in Italian the painting is known as La Gioconda). We know her as Mona Lisa, of course. ‘Mona’ being an archaic Italian word for ‘Lady’.
Leonardo was the true Renaissance man with interests in invention, painting, sculpture, music, mathematics, anatomy, geology, astronomy and much more; a real polymath. He started the painting in 1503 and worked on it, on and off, for four years and did not really stop working on it until shortly before he died in 1519.
There are very many innovative and unusual elements of this painting which, today, are taken for granted. The subject is not a famous person, she is shown sitting in what is known as a three-quarter pose – something never done before and is still a preferred angle. It’s also a half-length portrait rather than head-and-shoulders or full-length. The Italian term sfumato, meaning ‘smokey’ is translated into English as ‘feathered, shaded, fuzzy or blurred’. It is a technique brought into prominence by Leonardo based on the subtle use of layers of translucent paint. The glowing skin around the eyes is a good example of this. It was also extremely unusual to show an imaginary landscape, (which is clearly unfinished). If you look at the landscape on the left of the painting and compare it with that on the right you can see that the two halves don’t match properly – the view is impossible. The realism of the fading detail of the distance was also new. Before then artists showed as much detail in the distance as in the foreground. His deep knowledge of anatomy is seen in the masterful painting of her hands - always a difficulty.
The clever pyramid composition always draws the viewer toward her eyes. See left.
Mona wasn’t always an international celebrity until, in 1911, she was stolen from the Louvre by a workman who thought she should be kept in Italy. No one noticed for a day, thinking it had been removed for publicity photographs! She was returned there in 1913 and, since several attempts at vandalism, has been kept behind bullet-proof glass.

Her ‘about-to-smile’ expression and ‘eyes that follow you around the room’ are world renowned and there have been countless pastiches and interpretations of the original.

Mona Lisa has become embedded in modern popular culture

Listening to Joan Baez singing Love Song to a Stranger (click the title to hear it).This is a live performance of one of the saddest songs I know.


Dixie@dcrelief said...

I've always liked the eyes, and I think we referred to it as, painting on a 90 degree plane. For some reason, I want her to have eye brows!!!

bazza said...

Hi Dixie. There is a lot of speculation about the eyebrows and lashes. One version says that they were painted with such delicacy that they were removed by clumsy cleaning and another story is that the fashion was for ladies to shave off their eyebrows in those days.
Did you listen to Joan Baez? - it can bring a tear to the eye!

David said...

Hi bazza,
I think I've always wondered why the Mona Lisa is considered to be such a great painting, but your post has explained some of the reasons. For me, though, it's an image that's been over-used, if that's the right way to put it. Perhaps its greatness was obscured to me simply because of its familiarity.
Thanks for another informative post, bazza.
Very Best Wishes,

bazza said...

Hi David. It's true that over-familiarity can reduce one's ability to properly 'see' the painting. I had to work past that to be able to write this post! However, I do think it's a truly fascinating portrait with interesting history and worthwhile examining. Thanks for visiting.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I saw this original painting sometime in my travels. I studied it and formed my own opinion. I do not feel happiness with it, but I see a complicated life. This is how historians want us to react. However, who amongst us do not experience a complicated life. Happy, sadness and moments of joy and glory are what llife life holds for all of us. Mona Lisa probably lived as emotional
as all of us without the help of an iPhone. Today we can go to a psychoanalyst or Facebook for all the answers to life.

bazza said...

Hi Arleen. I see that you are in a deep philosophical mood today! Thanks for that useful insight.
Funnily enough when I was looking for images for the last picture there was one where she was holding an iphone. The i's follow you around the room.....

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I have a feeling that I wrote that comment in the middle of the night when I woke up from a bad dream. I will blame it on the Ambien.

Dixie@dcrelief said...

How sad to think it got cleaned, and removed some paint strokes.

With this painting... I thought of Nat King Cole's song version of, "Mona Lisa." I hope you've heard it. It's very sweet.

Joan Baez? I love her voice - she has often moved me with her ballads.

bazza said...

Arleen: But it was an insightful comment! I had to Google Ambien - it is marketed as Zolpidem in the UK.

bazza said...

Dixie: The removal was suggested because Vasari had described them in glowing terms.
Yes, I know the Nat King Cole song; a voice like golden syrup!

Sherry Ellis said...

You know, I never even noticed that the background of the painting was an imaginary scene, and that the two sides didn't line up. I always love coming to your blog and reading about the art works. It makes me see details I would never have thought to examine.

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. I think Leonardo's brilliance was that you didn't need to notice; the two halves seem to serve some kind of purpose in framing the portrait. I think he knew something that we don't!

loverofwords said...

I always learn something from your posts, Bazza. I did see the ML at the Louvre, but could not get near her to see her properly. Interesting to speculate why this painting compared to his others became so famous?

bazza said...

Hello Natasha, it's good to hear from you again! There is always a crowd around this picture because of its fame - I believe that many are disappointed because they expect so much. Familiarity has made it hard to 'see' properly and that's the reason I made this post. I thought it was time to examine what all the fuss was about. There aren't too many of his paintings extant but this and The Last Supper are two of the best known works of art of all time.

John said...

Ah! A painting that I know, although I haven't seen it in the flesh, so to speak! My parents have seen it and I think they were a bit underwhelmed, but I think that may have been the crowds, the bullet proof glass and the security guards looking at everyone as a potential thief!
As usual your words speak volumes as to your knowledge Bazza, if only I had an ounce of what you have, I would be a clever man!

bazza said...

Hi John. It can be very underwhelming and is actually better viewed in print or even on line because you can't see it properly! You are much too modest about your own knowledge which, as you know, I am fascinated by.

All Consuming said...

I've seen it in real life so to speak and still think she has a face like a slapped arse. However, the technique is interesting and the stories and hypothesis connected much the same. Some say it was actually a self portrait which he turned into a woman. Perhaps he has a touch of the Lily Savages about him eh? *laughs*. I love so much of his work.

bazza said...

Actually, Leonardo's sexuality has been a subject for discussion for five hundred years. The majority view is that he was homosexual but probably celibate. Sodomy could be punishable by death so he would have kept it quiet anyway.
He probably had an arse like a slapped face!

klahanie said...

Greetings Bazza,

I've always found the Mona Lisa a bit of a puzzle. I think if I saw her on the street, I'd run for my life.

David Cameron would like the Miss Piggy version, eh what!

Have a nice weekend, good sir and thank you for your supportive email.


bazza said...

Hi Gary. Now that you've mentioned it, I can see that she looks a bit like David Cameron. Spooky!

Anonymous said...

The sensational Sir Tom Eagerly is back:
Bazza old chap!. How the devil are you? They couldn't keep Sir Tom down forever could they.
I'm enjoying a nice vat of Taylor's Scion Port; pricey but superb. Do you know it? No, I suppose it's a bit above your price range old chap.
Jolly nice picture - painting by numbers is it?

bazza said...

Ah, you've woken up Sir Tom! How nice to hear from you again even though you rarely know what you are talking about!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - I hadn't noted the Sfumato element before ... I knew he worked in oils - though produced few paintings, but left us with lots of drawings. He was incredibly talented. When Leonardo went, in 1513, to work for King Francois 1 ... he took the Mona Lisa with him - it obviously meant a lot personally to him.

Interesting reading your views on his incredible work ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hello Hilary. I think he spent the remainder of his life in the court of Francois and he always worked on the painting!