Introduction

The Mona Lisa represents Leonardo's pinnacle as a painter - the seemingly infinite variations in tone using subtle transparent glazes would produce a lifelike quality which helped to lift Renaissance portraiture to a new level.

This was the celebrated aspect of the Mona Lisa for many centuries, but in recent years there has been a focus on the romantic and mysterious nature of this painting.

Whilst many of the artist's other works have been mired in arguments about attribution, scholars have been left to debate the identity of the sitter in this piece, as well as the mood that she displays as her gaze strikes upon us.

Modern society has a habit over obsessing over some things, and ignoring others completely, and it is fair to say that Da Vinci's paintings as a whole have much to offer, rather than just the Mona Lisa.

But the significance of this piece is how it encompasses all of the learnings from his previous decades of work, his toil around Italy looking for new commissions, and his commitment to his master Verrocchio as an apprentice.

He was now a true master, as he entered his fifties, and the Mona Lisa brings all of his innovations and experience together into one small, but perfectly formed artwork. The Mona Lisa resides today at the Louvre in Paris and remains its biggest highlight from an extraordinary permanent collection of European art.

"...None of Leonardo's works would exert more influence upon the evolution of the genre than the Mona Lisa. It became the definitive example of the Renaissance portrait..."

Frank Zöllner

Leonardo da Vinci must surely have invested a significant amount emotionally into this artwork, and felt a strong connection to it, in order to re-visit such a small work on some many occasions. Some have even suggested that he was still tweaking elements of the composition as late as 1517, which was just a few years before his death.

Perhaps he saw this painting as the closest that he could get to achieving perfection within art, and so would continually wonder how he might be able to improve it. It would inspire the next generations of Italian artists and set him out as a respected painter for centuries, with his legacy in other disciplines only coming about relatively recently.

This article examines each and every aspect of the Mona Lisa in the greatest of detail, from the original commission given to him by Lisa Gherardini's husband, Francesco del Giocondo, to the process which took many years to complete in order to produce the fine artwork that we consider to celebrate today.

There is an analysis of the piece itself, and a comparison between it and other secular portraits from the artist's career. We also discuss its progress after the life of the artist, with some restoration work helping to keep it in the best condition possible. Finally, we consider the Mona Lisa's legacy, both within the art world but also in wider society.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Commission
  3. The Mona Lisa Model
  4. Description
  5. Analysis
  6. Meaning
  7. Technical Information
  8. Location
  9. Restoration
  10. Copies
  11. Legacy
  12. Large, High Resolution Images of Mona Lisa
  13. References

Commission

The Mona Lisa was a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, commissioned by her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. Sadly, she had previously lost a daughter just a few years earlier, and so Francesco was careful to wait several months before contacting Leonardo about this work.

Both mother and child were happy and healthy, and so he set about celebrating the event with this portrait. It was meant to hang within the family home, but by the time Leonardo eventually completed it they had already relocated away from Florence.

The Giocondo family had earlier moved into a new home in early 1503 soon after the birth of Andrea. Francesco himself had lost two wives already due to childbirth and would have been anxious about the latest arrival.

Such problems were also widespread within Italian society at the time and so to see mother and child come through unscathed was clearly a moment of joy for the family. This was reason enough to warrant a new commission and so Francesco set about using his local connections to decide upon the most suitable artist for this task.

It is likely that Leonardo's father was well acquainted with the Giocondo family and he himself had already helped his son to acquire a number of different commissions.

Additionally, Leonardo was already working within the same chapel as used by the family for their own personal religious practices, and so may well have come into contact with them previously at the SS Annunziata in Florence.

The Mona Lisa Model

Most scholars today believe that the model for Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was Lisa del Giocondo. Indeed, the most famous art biographer of that era, Giorgio Vasari, wrote exactly this within his detailed account of the artist's life, which for many years was the main source of knowledge regarding Da Vinci's career.

A huge body of evidence has stacked up over the centuries to back up this claim, with much known about the Giocondo family as a whole.

Francesco del Giocondo was wealthy Florentine silk merchant and the theory that he wanted a portrait to celebrate the health of his wife and newborn child seems entirely in keeping with the practices of the Florentine middle classes of the time, as well as the personal tragedies that he himself had experienced.

"...Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife..."

Giorgio Vasari
Lisa del Giocondo

Lisa del Giocondo, née Gherardini, would have been approaching her mid-twenties at the time that Leonardo commenced the Mona Lisa painting. She married Francesco del Giocondo in 1495 whilst still a teen, and would go on to have five children in total.

She would live to the age of 63, which was above average for the Florence middle classes of the 16th century. She is believed to have risen in her social standing upon marrying, having come from a more modest background than her husband, but equally was very much in love with Francesco.

Her husband treated his wife particularly well according to the accounts of the time, and he himself would slowly rise in status after their marriage, becoming involved in politics alongside his growing business interests.

Alternative Theory - Isabella d'Este

The strongest alternative theory put forward as to the identity of the model for the Mona Lisa would have to be Isabella d'Este. She was well known to Leonardo, as he had worked for her in 1499, and there are a number of commissions for her which he never completed.

Some have suggested that after writing to him about this, perhaps the Mona Lisa was born from that. There are potential discrepancies between her own image, and that found within this portrait, such as her natural hair colour, and there is also far more evidence in favour of it being Lisa del Giocondo in any case.

It must also be pointed out that the other famous portraits of Isabella d'Este, by Titian and later Rubens, do not accurately resemble what we see in the Mona Lisa, and so this theory seems unlikely.

Description

The model is pictured from the waist up, in what is known as a "half-length" portrait. She is turned two-thirds towards us, and her eyes gaze directly in our direction. One hand is wrapped over the other and her facial expression is verging on a smile.

A small balustrade runs across the foreground, just behind the sitter, and provides a clear divide between the foreground and background. Leonardo avoids any other details within the foreground and this allows a sprawling landscape to spread across the back of the painting.

He also brings the model forwards towards us, with the top of her head nearly reaching the top of the composition. This enlarged outline helps to increase our connection her, whilst also giving more opportunity to the artist to expand upon his subtle details, as found previously within his portraits.

The landscape found within Mona Lisa is entirely typical of how he worked within this genre. There are rocky structures, areas of natural water, and also a softening of outlines as we push towards the back of the painting. Typically, his landscapes would slowly merge with the sky above and the artist often wrote about his technical reasons for doing this.

The model's hair is modestly styled and runs straight down to her shoulders, with just the suggesting of curls above her pale shoulders. She wears a dark gown, though the artist manages to deliver aesthetic interest through the beautifully crafted rolls of material which run along both sleeves. The clothing itself reminds us of Lisa Gherardini's status within the Italian middle classes, thanks to her marriage several years earlier.

The model within Mona Lisa also wears a veil which many do not immediately spot (it's outline slightly hangs out to our left hand side). Other than the sprawling landscape at the back, this painting appears relatively straight forward at first glance, but it is the incredible subtleties used by the artist which make it such an accomplished painting.

Analysis

How could such a seemingly simple composition rise to become the most famous painting of all time? Da Vinci's Mona Lisa features a wealth of innovations which would become the default style of portraiture for all Italian artists that followed. The three-quarter view in which the model is sat broke with tradition.

Leonardo da Vinci had also perfected his use of sfumato, which delivered life like qualities to his portraits that lifted the bar in Renaissance art. We see many examples of it in previous decades, but by the time of the Mona Lisa this technique of subtle variations of colour, with delicate layers of transparent glazes, had been perfected.

Many scholars have claimed that in this portrait we are connected to the inner soul of the subject, and that the artist is somehow able to portray their personality through the aesthetics. Many have been drawn in by the ambiguity of the subject's facial expression, which borders on a smile.

Leonardo would also incorporate elements of chiaroscuro, where light varies considerably from the foreground to the background and this helps to deliver a strong feeling of depth to the painting. He also takes his landscape work as far as had been seen within this painting, providing a complex myriad of elements which drift off into the distance.

Meaning

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa may not carry the same symbolism that you might find in other genres, but there are secrets within the artwork that you may not initially pick up. Lisa Gherardini's personality is portrayed through the subtle uplifts around the lips and eyes, giving us an insight into the life of a happy mother and wife.

The artist also combines the features of the landscape with the sitter's clothing and hair, with free flowing material on her sleeves offering a consistent look with the meandering rivers in the far distance. This is no coincidence, but a carefully planned artwork which took many years to finally complete.

Technical Information

Date

Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa between the years of 1503–1506, at which point he would have been in his early fifties. There is considerable evidence to suggest, however, that he continued to re-visit the work from time to time, making minor adjustments until 1517 at the latest.

That would mean that Leonardo would have been working on the Mona Lisa right up until just a few years before his death in 1519, aged 67. The artist would have completed his iconic The Last Supper (c. 1492–1498) in the previous decade, and at around the same time as the Mona Lisa he would also have worked on Salvator Mundi (c. 1499–1510) as well as his two versions of Madonna of the Yarnwinder.

He also completed some secular portraits which were compositionally-similar to the Mona Lisa in previous decades, such as Lady with an Ermine and Ginevra de Benci, and many of the qualities found in these paintings would continue into his portrait of Lisa Gherardini.

Size

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is 77 cm in height and 53 cm in width (30 inches × 21 inches). This is slightly larger than the artist's related secular portraits of Lady with an Ermine and Ginevra de Benci, which allowed Leonardo to incorporate a greater amount of detail in the background, but without ruining the balance of the painting.

Many visitors to the Louvre are surprised at how "small" the Mona Lisa is, but in fact it is correctly sized for a single portrait of the Renaissance era, and entirely consistent with the rest of the artist's career.

Leonardo would only make use of larger panels when the composition required it, such as with The Last Supper, where a huge number of figures were included, with that piece stretching to nine metres in width.

His Virgin of the Rocks stretches to nearly two meters in height, but the lower half of the work features four full-length portraits, and so warrants this larger work area.

In some cases the requirements of the donor will also impact size, and many of the artist's secular portraits were intended to be hung within small, private rooms such as a bedroom, where anything larger would have been entirely inappropriate.

Medium

The Mona Lisa was produced using oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel. Leonardo da Vinci would have been in his early fifties by the time he started to paint the Mona Lisa, and by this point in his career he had worked with both tempera and oils on multiple occasions.

Indeed, he would regularly combine the two, but over time he started to use tempera less and less, prefering the vivid colours delivered by the oils.

Italian artists had tended to prefer tempera for centuries, including Leonardo's own master, Verrocchio, but the influence of Flemish artists would open their eyes to this exciting alternative which would eventually become the dominant medium within Italian art.

The painting was made on a single thin slice of popular wood. One small crack is believed to have appeared over time and this is currently held together using a dovetail joint. The artist used more subtle tones here than perhaps in any other painting from his career, which explains why the artwork took so long whilst still being relatively small.

Leonardo used many transparent layers to create almost unlimited variations in tone, and therefore move towards as lifelike an image as possible. A varnish was added over the top but over time various materials have changed, altering the colour balance within the painting.

Location

Leonardo's Mona Lisa has resided at the Louvre in Paris, France since 1797. Its precise location is in Room 711 (Salle des États) of the Denon wing on Level 1. It remains the greatest highlight in the permanent collection of the Louvre, and attracts millions of visitors each and every year.

It is joined within this room by The Wedding Feast at Cana, Supper at Emmaus, The Crucifixion, Portrait of a Venetian Woman and Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices by Paolo Veronese, The Pastoral Concert, Woman with a Mirror, Man with a Glove and The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd by Titian as well as The Coronation of the Virgin by Tintoretto.

Provenance

Francis I of France, or François Ier (roi de France), would purchase the Mona Lisa fairly early on in its life, possibly as early as 1518. It would then make its way over to Fontainebleau Palace, where it would be displayed alongside two other artworks by Leonardo, namely Leda and the Swan, La Belle Ferronnière and St John the Baptist. The Mona Lisa would then remain here for around two centuries as part of the growing Royal Collection.

As we head towards the end of the 18th century, the painting would be relocated to Versailles, then back to Paris, before being returned to Versailles. Eventually it would pass to the Louvre in 1797 and has remained there ever since.

Having remained in the French Royal family for many centuries, after initially been purchased by King Francis I, the piece is now owned by the French Republic. It is also considered a cultural asset of great significance and is therefore highly unlikely to be sold.

Restoration

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa remains in fairly good condition, despite the artwork's age. The piece has never received a fall restoration, and any work completed on it in the past has been done so in a relatively subtle manner, meaning most of the work is much the same as when the artist first completed the piece.

Two of the main issues to occur have been the darkening of the varnish which has impacted the clarity of all detail within the painting, as well as some warping to the wooden panel. Both of these problems are entirely typical of art from the 15th and 16th century, and so restorers are well accustomed to dealing with these type of issues.

Other works have previously been transferred to canvas to avoid other common issues such as woodworm, but the Mona Lisa remains one its original panel of popular wood.

Some of the warping of the wood was caused by ill fitting or non-existant frames, which when combined with changing external conditions such as humidity, would inevitably cause the panel to alter shape.

Today the piece is well conserved and given consistent, optimal conditions which should help to avoid any further deterioration in the painting's condition. The current frame was added in 1909 and chosen as something faithful to the styles of the early 16th century, as well as suitable for the longterm protection of the piece.

Whilst hidden away in storage during WWII, the painting may have suffered somewhat from the alternative conditions but is today given the very best care possible - it is on display behind a bullet proof glass screen which protects against any unruly members of the public.

Copies

A large number of copies of the Mona Lisa exist today. The three most famous of those are known as the Prado Museum La Gioconda, the Isleworth Mona Lisa and the Hermitage Mona Lisa.

Many visitors to Da Vinci's studio, as well as some of his own assistants, would sit and produce their own versions of the Mona Lisa, and so it has proven difficult to attribute these different copies accurately. All three have been received support for also being from Leonardo's hand, though other scholars have also suggested that he was not involved.

Da Vinci did produce multiple versions of the same painting several times, and so it is not impossible that he produced copies of the Mona Lisa, but the more likely scenario is that highly skilled members of his studio created these other versions.

Legacy

The Mona Lisa would have a greater influence on the direction of Renaissance art than any artwork by Leonardo da Vinci.

It was admired for many different reasons, and the most famous artist to learn directly from this piece would be Raphael, who used some of its qualities in portraits such as Young Woman with Unicorn, Portrait of Maddalena Doni, La Velata and Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione.

Da Vinci's lifelike portraits had impressed many for several decades but the Mona Lisa represented his greatest achievement, at which point his evolution as a portrait painter was now complete. All of his innovations with oils were on display within this single piece.

It would be used as a benchmark for all portaiture going forwards, both in terms of precise, lifelike aesthetics as well as the manner in which the artist composed the scene.

Italian art during the Renaissance was famous for the different schools which would put forward their own ideas and styles, each learning from each other, but the Mona Lisa represented the starting point from which all later portrait painters should refer - an unchallengeable, perhaps even perfect display of the visual arts.

Over time the painting's fame would lead to a magical quality falling upon its reputation, with viewers becoming mesmerised by the ambigious qualities of the subject's facial expressions. It would go on to become the most researched artwork in history too, with academics desperate to uncover new secrets about it for centuries to come.

The World's Most Famous Painting

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa remains the world's most famous painting of all time. A number of studies over the past few decades have continually placed this oil painting from the early 16th century as the most well known piece across the world, in a list which is dominated by western art, underlining the spread of western culture across the planet.

Large, High Resolution Images of Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is famed for its use of subtle tones and the layers of transparent glazes which allowed the artist to create the most lifelike of images for this portrait. Those fortunate enough to see this painting in person at the Louvre, will marvel at the intricacy of fine detail delivered in this artwork.

For the less fortunate of us who are unable to visit this famous art museum in Paris, we have included some larger images of the original painting below, some of which have been digitally retouched in order to reduce some of the signs of aging that have inevitably occured over the past five hundred years.

Mona Lisa in Detail Leonardo da Vinci

References