Recognize the picture? Of course you do, it has been plastered on over 2,000 advertisements and 300 paintings, and arguably the most famous piece of art in the world. But what makes Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa SO special?
As far as technique, the Mona Lisa is significant because it is a good example of the power of Leonardo’s sfumato painting style of not drawing outlines, and giving the painting a smokey and slightly smudged look in places. By using blurred shadows, Leonardo created a very peaceful atmosphere, as well as creating an optical illusion with her mouth, making it hard for the viewer to tell if the subject is smiling or straightfaced. It is also one of the first uses of atmospheric perspective (creating a background that appears to have depth, usually using color changes and scenery often seen far away) when many other paintings of the time had flat or relatively plain backgrounds. Overall, it is a beautiful and serene painting, though not particularly more exciting or fascinating than others of the time, but that’s where the mystery comes in.
Leonardo didn’t consider this work finished, and kept it with him-sometimes working on it in later years-until his death. This in itself created intrigue, as it is believed to have been a commission by a wealthy patron to be a portrait of his wife, Lisa, but he never received it. After being in a few locations after Leonardo’s death, the Mona Lisa was placed in the Louvre in Paris in 1797, and in 1911 it was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian Louvre worker who believed it belonged in Italy-where Leonardo was from. It was discovered and returned to the Louvre two years later, and because of this ordeal the Mona Lisa‘s popularity skyrocketed. It has been meticulously cared for and though there have been a few other attempts at vandalizing the work, it is mostly undamaged and is now kept in a bulletproof case kept at a precise temperature and humidity.
On a personal note, I visited the Louvre this past summer, and got to see the Mona Lisa with my own eyes. My impression? It was small. This painting is much smaller than one might expect, and is also one of the most sought-after piece in the entire Louvre (which is TRULY MASSIVE) which confused me after seeing some of the monumental and, frankly, much more exciting pieces in the museum. It is undoubtedly a beautiful painting, and I am glad I was able to see it; I was more glad, though, to be able to see it at the end of the day when the room was practically empty, rather than when it usually looks like this: