Is the Mona Lisa any good?

Apparently 80% of the Louvre’s ten million annual visitors go to see the Mona Lisa.

I remember a school trip to Paris and when we visited the Louvre almost every one of us ran straight to the Mona Lisa and then onto the café. I am sure most visitors do a similar hit and run.

But does she deserve the adulation?

When Leonardo started painting the Mona Lisa he was fifty-two and already had a reputation as a universal man of genius. He could have worked for anyone. Yet he chose to painted Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a mere Florentine silk merchant. Why?

Portrait of Lisa del Giacondo, Leonardo da Vinci, c.1503-6 (and later?) © Louvre Museum

The commission must have been quite a coup for her husband Francesco, whose social status was much below the elevated milieu of kings and nobleman in which Leonardo usually sought commissions.

I wonder if Leonardo wanted to paint Lisa del Giocondo for the same reason Francesco wanted to marry her – her reputed charm and haunting beauty.

Lisa had only a small dowry and it is likely Francesco married for love. This was a particularly happy moment for him. In recent times he had lost two wives, both within a year of marriage, one during childbirth. But now he had found and married Lisa and she had recently delivered him a much longed-for son. Leonardo may have felt some affection for this amorous couple.  

(left) Portrait of a Young Lady, Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere, 1485-90 © Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

How innovate is the Mona Lisa?

The Mona Lisa was not wholly revolutionary in its design. Leonardo used many borrowed ideas in its conception. He shows Lisa sitting in front a balustrade that acts as a point of transition from the figure to a landscape beyond; this was a device other artists had used repeatedly over the last twenty years (see above).

And yet, look how Leonardo has brought Lisa forwards, closer to us. This heightens the intensity. He placed the horizon line not by her neck but on a level with her eyes, thus linking her with the landscape. And what a landscape it is; full of drama and mystery, in which the world seems to be in a state of flux.

‘in this work of Leonardo there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold’

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Book IV, 1550

It is through Lisa’s eyes and mouth that Leonardo made this the best known picture ever painted. Leonardo did not paint the outlines of these features, did not draw a line to identify the edges of the lips like fellow painter Sandro Botticelli would, but fashioned subtle transitions that mirror the blurred lines you see in real life as light draws across a moving face.

Only a perfectionist could form these effects that required a slow, painstaking accumulation of layers and layers of very thin glaze on the wood panel.

Leonardo finished very few paintings in his life, probably somewhere between 25 and 40 (for comparison, scholars think Titian painted around 250, Rembrandt 300, and Rubens around 1,500). His painting process took a long time. It was no way of getting rich.

Great caution while working with layers was necessary due to the fact that every coating had to be dry before applying the next. Leonardo worked on his portrait of Lisa for several years and this may have been due to the long drying time between the application of each layer, until he finally attained his famous sfumato look.

His approach was the very opposite of the Impressionist method of impasto brushstrokes. Both require great skill, but Leonardo’s required something more. Leonardo’s followers never achieved the same effects as him because they copied the end result without having the dedication and technical mastery to do it properly.   

‘In the pit of her throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse’

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Book IV, 1550

What did Leonardo’s rivals think of the Mona Lisa?

As Leonardo was working on this portrait, Raphael, then aged about twenty (Leonardo was in his fifties), repeatedly visited his workshop to see what he was up to. Raphael was a learning machine, constantly taking ideas from other artists and assimilating them into his own style. In just a few years he would become the most sought-after artist in Rome.

(middle) Portrait of a young woman, Raphael, c.1503 © British Museum (right) Portrait of a young woman, Raphael, c.1504 ©

The drawing in the middle (above) is thought to be Raphael’s first reaction to the Mona Lisa. Raphael has adapted the three-quarter pose and sideward glance but he has not as yet learned all of the lessons of the Mona Lisa. Can you see why his drawing is quite stiff and unsatisfactory compared to the Mona Lisa?

In the drawing on the right (above), made a year later, Raphael has absorbed these lessons. You can see the innovative positioning of the sitter’s furthest arm moving across her body which significantly enhances the sense of depth and the force of the her personality.

The Mona Lisa made an immediate impact on Leonardo’s rivals. Replicas of it were being painted during Leonardo’s lifetime and she quickly came to be seen as the personification of the ideal portrait rather than just another portrait.

How does it compare to other great portraits?

Can anyone say the Mona Lisa is better than other great portraits, such as these below (a few of my favourites)?

(from left to right) Raphael, Pope Julius II, Titian, Man with a Quilted Sleeve, Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, Durer, Self-Portrait

There is more panache, honesty and impressive brushstrokes in some of these works than in the Mona Lisa. Many are more loveable. You only have to turn around in the Salle des États in the Louvre and look at the incredible Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese to see a work that is a true feast for the eyes in a way that the Mona Lisa certainly is not.

View across to The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1562-3, from the Mona Lisa in the Salle des États
© Christopher Broughton

But I think we can all agree Mona Lisa’s modern fame has tainted our experience of her. She can now only been seen behind glass, from a distance, in the middle of a large and rather-desperate crowd.

Unlike Veronese’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa is not a grand spectacle that unfolds before you like a great drama. Instead she is insular, subtle and mysterious. It is like your first meeting with someone special; flirty, teasing, unknowing. Looking again now, even after seeing her face a thousand times, the Mona Lisa still interests me and I see things I hadn’t noticed before. She always leaves you wanting to know more.

Should the Mona Lisa make you smile? I think so.


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