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. metscan says:

    You gave me the courage to comment on this post : ).
    Mona Lisa, what more could I add. What is there behind her smile? Her hidden pregnancy?
    I greatly admire the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Especially the incomplete – feel sketches.
    I see so much similarity in his horse drawings to those of J-L Sauvat. Pure magic. As if you did not know by now, horses are the most beautiful creatures of the animal kingdom for me ; ).
    Thank you for this post : ).

  2. Curator says:

    La Gioconda is not for me his greatest work. I find it exceedingly overrated, and the hysteria surrounding it rather nauseating. However, his scientific exploration and discoveries are on a par with those of Tesla, for his time that is. And one can hardly fault his visualisation of muscle structure and dissections. He was a greater scientist than an artist. Once the manipulation of visual media discovered and executed, he used ‘art’ as a method of recording his scientific mind, and not just as an end in itself.

    I would dine with Tesla, Serge Gainsbourg, Edward Bernays, Aristotle, Marie-Antoinette, Émilie du Châtelet, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Lully, and Elizabeth I, to name but a few…The list is so long in fact, that it would be a rather large weekend house party, instead of a dinner.

    • David Leeds says:

      Leonardo did, indeed, study the physical world with much of the scientific method.
      His studies of musculature and scientific/mechanical drawings,imaginings, and inventions, were far ahead of his time. However, I do feel that in his great painings he put technique in the service of emotion and conveying, powerful emotional aspects of our nature. I like your idea of a house party.

  3. tseyang says:

    why it is so?????????????? mona lisa is not real????????????even you are not real??????? the world is not real?? what is real????????? nothing is real….there is only one real….you know what it is????????????

  4. MIHAIL says:

    When was in Paris in 2005, I couldn’t but visit Louvre. But to Louvre came with sound recording equipment which was provided kindly by French. I found “Mona Lisa” and I began to write down the sound background created by numerous visitors, come to look at a masterpiece. The logic was simple. I will dare to note that any masterpiece possesses property of the high-structured information field. The person is too, in the basis, field structure. There is a contact of two field structures – the person and a masterpiece. In it probably art force. Those sounds, which people published, being in a masterpiece field (conversations, a shuffling of feet, etc.), were very valuable to me, they korrelyativno were connected with it. Having subjected these records to the most difficult transformational processing, I managed to receive absolutely improbable soundings. They brought many into shock, – in these sounds accurate identification with “Mona Lisa’s” portrait was observed. I made similar records and at the well-known sculpture of Venus. As a result, on to basis of these records, at me three works – “Knowledge”, “Stream” and “Communication” were born.

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    Thanks for coingtbutinr. It’s helped me understand the issues.

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