Tourist elbows were jabbing in all directions as everyone stretched for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, a painting that, according to McKay “may actually be the best-known painting in the history of art” (McKay 427). As I timidly squeezed closer to the front, I heard flashes of the same disappointed exclamation in a multitude of languages: “It’s so small!” And it was. It was barely two and a half feet tall, and being completely honest, there was nothing special about it. She had no goddess-like or exquisite beauty; her face was in fact very androgynous, and while it was a well-painted portrait, I could not possibly understand what causes people like me to push past crowds to get a picture in front of a painting that is so underwhelming.
The artist, Leonardo da Vinci, has been noted as “one of the greatest geniuses in the history of the Western world” and his most famous portrait is the Mona Lisa (McKay 427). Depicting the wife of a rich Florentine merchant, the Mona Lisa sits in the Louvre, the “unchallenged center of Western art,” according to art critic James Gardner (Gardner).
Now, I’m not an art critic, but I can appreciate the technically strong aspects of the painting. In Darren Rowse’s “What the Mona Lisa Can Teach You About Taking Great Portraits,” he explains that the Mona Lisa has a standard and simple pyramidal composition with the lighting meticulously planned to highlight the perfect scientific anatomy of the woman’s face. Other portraits painted around the time were very rigid, but da Vinci has painted her in a revolutionary, relaxed, ¾ pose, with her eyes at the eye level of the viewer to add intimacy. Da Vinci was careful not to add extra details in her clothing such as jewelry so as not to distract from the “unparalleled naturalism” of her face (Rowse, Gardner). The background of the painting has the intense detail traditionally found in Renaissance paintings, but da Vinci has faded the background the further it is from the subject, so that the viewer’s eye can go directly to the subject.
Those who have the opportunity to really look at it will, in fact, see the true genius behind the Mona Lisa. There are such alluring and aloof qualities of the woman that create a mysterious, elusive ambiguity about her that has “confounded and compelled the attention” of those who have studied it extensively (Gardner). A closer look at the Mona Lisa shows that is not simply one portrait, as we have been led to believe, but in fact three separate portraits that “coexist within it simultaneously” (Gardner). At first glance, the Mona Lisa is a beautiful and desirable woman who smiles and makes eye contact with the viewer. Step a little closer, and you will see her with an expression of pain and sadness. Closer still, and she has a “nightmarish menace” about her that caused Walter Pater, a 19th-century essayist, to declare that “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” (Gardner).
The “air of suffocating, feverish intensity” of the painting “transfixed the critics of the 19th century,” with one critic writing, “this canvas attracts me, entices me, invades me and absorbs me. And I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake.” (Gardner). Regular people, including myself, seem to flock to the Louvre so they can see the Mona Lisa, simply for the reason that it is so well-known, and its fame seems to have tainted its genius. Therefore, as art critic James Gardner rightly points out, the “potent originality” of the Mona Lisa has “assumed a pall of such impenetrable familiarity that we no longer see it at all” (Gardner). Perhaps this is the reason this famed work of art failed to impress me the first time.
Gardner, James. “James Gardner on Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – WSJ.com.” Business News & Financial News – The Wall Street Journal – Wsj.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. “European Society in the Age of the Renaissance, 1350-1550.” A History of Western Society. 7th ed. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 421-428. Print.
Rowse, Darren. “What the Mona Lisa Can Teach You About Taking Great Portraits .” Digital Photography Tips: Digital Photography School . N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.