Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Interpretation and Analysis of High Renaissance Portrait of Lisa Gherardini

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Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa.
By Leonardo da Vinci.
Iconic portrait of the
Italian Renaissance,
and one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503-6)


Analysis & Interpretation


Painting: Mona Lisa
Date: 1503-06
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Medium: Oil on wood
Genre: Renaissance portrait art
Movement: High Renaissance
Museum: Louvre, Paris.

For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Posters of Mona Lisa
Fine art posters of paintings
by Leonardo da Vinci,
are widely available
online. See also:
Poster Art (c.1860-1980)

See also:
How To Appreciate Paintings.

Best Portraiture
For the best portraits, see:
Greatest Portrait Paintings.

Interpretation of Mona Lisa

Valued in excess of $1 billion, the Mona Lisa, perhaps the greatest treasure of Renaissance art, is one of many masterpieces of High Renaissance painting housed in the Louvre. The painting is known to Italians as La Gioconda, the French call her La Joconde. The work is arguably the finest ever example of portrait art, and one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Despite being the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa is - like all of Leonardo's works - neither signed nor dated. Its title comes from the biography of Leonardo written by the 16th century Mannerist painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), and published around 1550, which reported his agreement to paint the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine dignitary and wealthy silk merchant. Vasari also mentioned that Leonardo employed musicians and troubadours to keep her amused, which might explain her enigmatic smile. As usual, Leonardo procrastinated endlessly over the painting - notably the position of the subject's hands - and continued working on it for another 20 years. Sadly, La Gioconda has become so famous and so valuable that it is almost impossible to catch more than a quick glimpse of her, as she sits inscrutably in the Louvre behind the non-reflective glass of her temperature-controlled security box.



More Analysis of Mona Lisa

The portrait shows the subject sitting upright and sideways in a chair, with her face and chest turned slightly towards the viewer: a posture derived from the 'pyramid' image used to depict a sitting Madonna. Her left arm sits comfortably on the armrest of the chair and is clasped by the hand of her right arm which crosses her front. The slightly protective position of her arms, as well as the armrest, creates a sense of distance between sitter and spectator.

The background landscape behind the sitter was created using aerial perspective, with its smoky blues and no clearly defined vanishing point. It gives the composition significant depth, although its details reveal a clear imbalance between the (higher) rocky horizon to the right, compared to the (lower) flatlands stretching away on the left. This imbalance adds to the slightly surreal atmosphere of the picture.

Another slightly surreal feature of the Mona Lisa is her lack of eyebrows and eyelashes. This was not a deliberate act of the artist, as scans indicate that originally she was given both. It is possible that the colour pigment used for these facial features has since faded or been inadvertently removed during cleaning.

The Mona Lisa exemplifies Leonardo's contribution to the art of oil painting, namely his mastery of sfumato. This painterly technique involves the smooth, almost imperceptible, transition from one colour to another, by means of ultra-subtle tonal gradations. Evident throughout the painting, Leonardo's use of sfumato is particularly visible in the soft contouring of Lisa Gherardini's face, around the eyes and mouth. It was a technique of oil painting that he had already demonstrated with great success in The Virgin of the Rocks (1483-5).

The general impression created by the Mona Lisa portrait is one of great serenity, enriched by a definite air of mystery. The serenity comes from the muted colour scheme, the soothing sfumato tonality, and the harmony created by the sitter's pyramid-shaped pose and understated drapery. The mystery stems from a number of factors: first, her enigmatic half-smile; second, her gaze, which is directed to the right of the viewer; her hands which have a slightly unreal, lifeless quality - almost as if they belonged to a different body.

Created by one of the greatest Old Masters in the history of art, the Mona Lisa is a wonderful example of High Renaissance aesthetics of the early cinquecento, and has become an unmistakable icon of Western culture: a fact recognized by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the father of modern art, in his parody entitled L.H.O.O.Q.



Further Resources

For more about paintings by High Renaissance artists, try these resources:

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) (c.1490)
Renaissance in Rome

• For more masterpieces like the Mona Lisa, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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