Mona Lisa; Why Is This Woman Smiling?


She is the most famous and most reproduced portrait ever painted, by the man, Leonardo da Vinci, who is widely considered the ” most diversely talented person” who ever lived. Leonardo’s genius extended across painting, to sculpture, drawing, architecture, engineering, music, cartography, botany, to a prescient ability to forsee and design many machines and mechanical concepts, centuries in advance of his time. There has never been a more robust and curious intellect that has conquered so many fields at such a high level. He is not just the epitome of the term, ” Renaissance Man,” but a giant of human evolution. If you wanted to  put one human being in a time capsule to represent us to unknown and future civilizations, it would probably be he. Yet for all his accomplishments in the practical arts, and logic, this painting, so mysterious, is probably his most renowned legacy. It is a masterpiece of context, technique, and emotional impact that has astonished viewers for over five hundred years. Painted on a poplar panel, Leonardo started the piece in 1503, but did not finish it straight off. He carried it with him until his death in 1519, tinkering with it off and on throughout the years. This was typical of  Leonardo, who was was a fierce perfectionist. His contemporary, the great art historian, Vasari, said “that he lingered over it for four years, left it unfinished…It is known that such behaviour is common in most paintings of Leonardo, who, later in life, regretted, never having completed a single work.” He took the painting to France while in the employ of the French King, Francis I, who became an extremely close firend, as well as his patron. Francis, in fact, bought the painting from Leonardo, which is why it resides today, in the Louvre.

It is widely accepted that the The Mona Lisa is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. The portrait is nicknamed, La Gioconda, in Italian, and La Joconde, in French. It is a play in both languages on her actual name and the expression, “the happy or smiling or laughing one.” Remember, Leonardo not only created this most famous of all paintings, but also the Last Supper, which is certainly the most famous religious painting in history. His Vetruvian Man is probably the most famous symbol of humanity ever created.

The Last Supper, above right, was not painted in the dependable fresco technique, but was tempura over gesso. It started to mold and flake very quickly, and although it still retains a stunning visual impact, one can only imagine the glory of the original. Vetruvian man, left, is considered a study of the ideal proportions of the human body, residing within that most perfect of all mathematical shapes, the circle. They were both done in the mid 1490′s.

Leonardo is so extraordinary that I can’t resist a brief detour into his life and work before returning to the Mona Lisa. He was born in 1452 in the small village of Vinci, to an unmarried  16 year old woman. Young Leonardo lived with his father and grandparents, receiving only an informal education. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to the painter, Verrochio, a highly esteemed artist, in Florence. It was here that he received a wide ranging and thorough training in painting, drawing, sculpture, metalurgy casting, etc. His prowess developed so quickly that the work he did with Verrochio, between 1472 and 1475, on a piece called, The Baptism of Christ, caused his master to stop painting, he was so in awe of Leonardo’s talent.


Leonardo painted the young angel holding the robe of Jesus. Verrochio never picked up a paint brush again.

Below is The Annunciation, painted between 1475-1480. It is considered to be Leonardo’s first complete painting, soley by his own hand.

His earliest solo commission was The Adoration of the Magi, below, left. It was unfinished. Another incredible piece from this period is The Battle of Anghieri, below, right.

Leonardo’s studies of horses that were preparatory to the painting are among the most amazing drawings you will ever see.

His mastery of all the skills of draughtsmanship is breathtaking.

Before we get back to our main subject, I have to show just a few more of his extraordinary paintings, that are filled with, what I can only describe as, aching beauty. Below, left, The Virgin and Christ with St Anne, and center, a drawing done around 1500, that preceedes the painting by almost ten years, but anticipates it. Below these pieces are three other hauntingly beautiful works of his.

There are so many technical and contextual elemnts that make the Mona Lisa, this iconic image, so unique. The painting itself is 77 x 53 cm., or 30 x 20 7/8 inches.

The facial expression that dominates the portrait is achieved by several techniques working together. The sitter is forward in the picture plane, sitting up very straight. While the chair arm does create some distance between observer and observed, it also serves to propel her upward, in a way, in our face. Leonardo has dressed her very simply and she wears no personal adornment. The light that models her face, chest, and hands becomes a dramatic pyramid shape surrounded by dark areas. They stand out and attract our eyes immediately. There is nothing to distract us. The sense of life in her face coupled with her serenity, draw us inexorably in. Leonardo’s now famous technique of , “sfumato” is one of the agents of the portraits animation. Sfumato literally means, smoke, and what Leonardo did was to avoid painting or drawing outlines, especially at the corners of the mouth and the eyes. He used these smoky shadows, rather than harsh, defined lines, to finish off the forms.

Laser analysis has shown that da Vinci used as many as 30 layers of paint to a thicknes of less than 40 micrometers.Yet, this astonishingly thin build up of paint happens without the appearance of a single brushstroke. It is truly remarkable. Leonardo painted this piece with oils, in the modern manner, but layed on like tempera. It gives the painting a feeling of delicacy and lightness that feel like it embues the volumes with both substance, and at the same time, weightlessness.

Leonardo was also the first to place a sitter in front of an imaginary landscape. And what an evocative, gorgeous landscape it is. It creates an unworldly atmosphere, with its aerial perspective and forms that echo shapes in the sitter, herself. Leonardo’s interest in, and vast knowldge of, botany also made him the premier landscape painter of his time.

It is the Mona (which is a shortened form of the Italian word for Madame used in this time period) Lisa’s direct gaze and engagement with the viewer that has captivated all art lovers, around the world. Even though she does not have eyelashes, scans have shown that she originally did, as well as more pronounced eyebrows. The painting has been cleaned, but never, “restored,” or painted over. There have been a few minor fill ins with watercolor to cover a very few cracked or bruised areas. There is no question, however, that the lack of stong brows or lashes, makes the face both more abstract and more direct, in it’s immediate perception. There is less to distract us from her gaze. She is all eyes.

Above, is a closer look at her hands and one of Leonardo’s many superb  preperatory drawings. What I particularly relish is the the delicacy, and feeling of lightness, they exhibit, combined with a sense of active repose.

The real question though, is this a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, or a self  portrait of Leonardo as a woman, or is it someone else, entirely, as a few have suggested. And, is it simply a portrait, or does it contain secret symbology a la Dan Brown and “The Da Vinci Code.”

As to the idea that this is really a portrait of Leonardo as a woman, I just don’t see it. There are so many peoples’ faces you could attach side by side and have some hint of resemblance. I think this becomes even more clear when you look at some of Leonardo’s other portraits of women.

I think one could look at  the figure on the left, of this sketch for a painting we have seen earlier, that was done approximately ten years before, as having a similar quality to the face of Mona Lisa. If you look at all the female figures I have shown examples of, earlier, you see a uniform quality of sweetness, gentleness and , idealization, as in the Mona Lisa. It is simply Leonardo’s way of portraying women, throughout his entire oeuvre.

There is no question that del Giocondo comissioned  a portrait. However, there is also no first hand discussion of the Mona Lisa’s fidelity to Lisa’s actual face. To me, the etherial, mysterious ambience created by the sitter’s direct gaze, her relationship to the background landscape, and the overall subdued harmony attained in this painting, make it a portrait that may have started to be about one woman, but came to be vastly more symbolic. I think it is an idealized apotheosis of womanhood, and the relationship between woman, or man, and nature. The fact that Leonardo carried it with him for so long, attests to a larger meaning for him, than simply the portrait of one merchant’s wife, that he had trouble finishing.

Some people have claimed to find the letter “S’” in her left eye, the letter “L” in her right eye, and the number “72″ under the bridge in the background. These symbols are not visible to the naked eye. Some have suggested references to the Kabbalah, the Sforza dynasty, Leonardo himself. My only response to these intriguing formulations is, go enjoy the “Da Vinci Code” in the theatre, but trust your own eyes in the museum.

This most famous of all paintings was actually stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an employee who ended up keeping it in his appartment for two years. It was unharmed. Subsequently people have thrown acid at it, thrown a rock at it, and tried to spray paint it red. Happily she has only suffered the most minor damage.

It is sometimes hard to see a work that has become so famous, been so popularized and so parodied, with clear eyes. If one does, a transporting experience awaits.To my mind, the Mona Lisa is every bit , one of the greatest paintings, by one of the greatest artists, who ever lived. Her smile alone, caught me, hook, line, and sinker, at first sight.

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29 Comments on "Mona Lisa; Why Is This Woman Smiling?"

  1. Kathy says:

    If I could have dinner with anyone throughout history, I think I would choose Leonardo. I imagine him almost as another species – such brilliance, imagination, and foresight. A great post on a painting that’s so iconic, I almost ignore it.

  2. David Leeds says:

    i agree with you on dinner, except maybe Einstein, for me, would also be in the running. It is so easy to dismiss this great work of art because of its popularity. A lesson we should all remember.

  3. Ulf Skei says:

    Would be interesting to have a talk with this painter, yes. I’m glad he did what he did, and is remembered. Excellent article on a very interesting work!

  4. sulky kitten says:

    This is a great post David, a really interesting read. He was undoubtedly a genius – it’s astounding to think that so much creative brilliance resided in just one man.

    • David Leeds says:

      Talk about humble pie. I’m on a strict diet. Who would be your 2 or 3 choices for dinner companions from the past?

      • sulky kitten says:

        I’m a fickle Kitty, but today I’m extending invites to Rochefoucauld for his cynicism and wit, Alan Clark ( Political diarist UK) for his outrageous opinions and humour.

        • A Husk of Meaning says:

          My, my, you erudite kitty, you. I’ve been knee deep in google finding out that Rochefoucauld, no relation to Michel, apparently, was quite an interesting, well rounded, engaged and insightful, man about his time. Impressive. And Kenneth’s first born, Alan seems to have been almost as interesting. I don’t know what’s in that kat nip, but I want some.

  5. Ed says:

    Excellent piece. Learned so much as David pulled me through all the history and into the subtilties of Leonardo’s brush strokes. Saw some things for, I think, the first time (no eyebrows or eyelashes). Isn’t the Mona Lisa covered in a case of bullet-proof glass to prevent more attempts to vandalize it? Mona Lisa smiles because she is happy, I think, right? Or is she sad happy? Or is it because she is pregnant? Pregnant again? The filming of the movie, The Mona Lisa Smile, at Wellesley College caused controversy at the college and beyond. Those issues had to do with hues of skin color. Thank you, David Leeds.

  6. the mona lisa.. what an amazing work. what an amazing artist, he was so brilliant some times i wonder if he wasnt from the furture and created a time machine to get the feeling of these timeless wonders.. it makes me wonder. though i have seen the mona lisa many many times. i have to tell you david i looked at it in a different way from your article. your article is brilliant, thank you for this post. truly love it.

  7. Marisa Peck says:

    Such a great post. I love the image of the Mona’s face split with da Vinci’s. I think there is a very striking similarity! While I agree that it is probably not, as some would suggest, a self portrait of the artist as a woman, I would say it is testimony that one’s art is always an expression of one’s self… Isn’t it all a “self portrait?”

    And the horse studies are fantastic! Never seen those before. This is a beautiful tribute to a great human. Cheers da Vinci.

    • David Leeds says:

      Marisa, his drawings are indeed incredible, actually beyond compare. He was not a very prolific painter, but an incredibly prolific, constant, and diligent, draughtsman. He filled notebook after notebook.

  8. Sheri Howe says:

    David, thank you so much for this passionate post!! I absolutely adore da Vinci and feel so moved by the depth and sensitivity of his works. There is so much depth and insight to this writing as well and I learned some things that I never knew and felt so connected to him through your words, Thanks!!
    It still makes me sad about Verrochio…

    • David Leeds says:

      Sheri, I’m so glad that I could add to your love of this great artist. It was a great pleasure for me to revisit his work and life. He was one of the giants of our species. It’s easy to forget how “achingly beautiful,” so much of his work is.

  9. such a great post david. i had to go back and look and read it again and agian, all i can say is if i were being painted by the great leonardo davinci i would be smiling too. i love this post.

  10. David, it is so important to be reminded of the genius of Leonardo and his masterpiece the Mona Lisa. We get so used to certain things that we don’t stop to appreciate the genius of the artist and the art work. I had goosebumps when I read your post because it made me think about the great artists and writers and musicians of the past and their gift of art that lasts forever. Their creations make us who we are today.

    • David Leeds says:

      Sunday, as always, your insights are trenchant. We all, often take for granted, even some of our favorite works in all media. There are so many pieces that have given me goosebumps and emotional, spiritual, and intellectual epiphanies that i just take for granted. We are constantly deluged with so much information that our perceptual systems are often full of noise. I find going back, whether to a painting, book, film, or piece of music that has been important to me, is vitally necessary. As you said, it helps keep us in touch with who we are.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard