Monday, July 17, 2006

Many Shades of Meaning behind the Smile: The Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is synonymous in popular imagination with her cryptic smile.

 She's the
wife of a wealthy 16th century Florentine Merchant. Some dispute her identity. She is a prostitute, Da Vinci himself or a figment of imagination. The Mona Lisa's struck the right chord so like any celebrity the speculation never stops and the paparazzi will not leave her alone.

Her popular allure has grown from an overlapping cascade of effects. Her immediate and lasting impression, the steeped awe that surrounds her prodigious painter, and the accidents of history that have made her a marketing phenomenon.

At first glance the Mona Lisa provokes an emotional response. A young woman with folded hands seated in a muted bucolic background. She's dressed as someone of standing in 16th Century Florentine society.

 She has an elegance in her dress. Her face and her bodice are brought into relief by a trick of light that achieves subtle contrast.

Her face is serene and smooth and there is wit in her eyes.

The whisper of a smile speaks volumes. Some question the expression. But the doubt is academic since the intention to the unbiased first glance is always a smile. The confusion comes from the lingering view.

The painter Leonardo Da Vinci (1452- 1519) is a mythic figure. During his life Da Vinci would build a body of work in art, science, anatomy, and architecture to name a few of his wide ranging interests, that to this today are compelling in a preternatural way. His anatomy drawings are a high standard in the field centuries before the scientific revolution.

Leonardo's anatomical studies, coupled with his knowledge of psychology and his mastery of the painter's craft, put at his disposal by his fiftieth year, when he probably painted this picture, ability possessed by no other artist with the exception of Velzquez and Rembrandt. (Stites 563)

Stites illustrates the many elements Da Vinci  mastered with this work. He reveals  the painting was intended in a joyful spirit and not of a mourning widow The green dress with dark red sleeves.( Stites 563) she wears darkened with time to appear like funeral attire.

The fame and the mystique of the Mona Lisa were aided by the lyrical testimony of contemporary writer Giorgio Vasari. Vasari wrote a massive tome on the works of a number of prominent artists of his time in the the middle of the 16th Century .

Barolsky a current art historian and authority in the area is ebullient in his praise of Vasari's work:
"Vasari's monumental Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects is without question the single greatest book ever written about the history of art." (Barolsky 123)

 He identifies the Mona Lisa as the wife of Francesco del Giocondo a prominent Florentine silk merchant.

 He tells us that during the painting  professional clowns  kept her amused.

 Da Vinci's technique reflects his preoccupations . As Clark describes the Mona Lisa's smile was no accident:

" the Mona Lisa's smile is the supreme example of that complex inner life, caught and fixed in durable material, which Leonardo in all his notes on the subject claims as one of the chief aims of art." (Clark 119)

The work was an embodiment, as Clark describes, of Da Vinci's drive to capture the living moment on canvas with the use of the Sfumato, or a kind of smoke like effect that is almost impressionistic in its ability to capture living motion in a two dimensional image. This technique is used to fine effect in the painting but the smile is painted with more exactness than the broader lines of impressionism.

The Mona Lisa and the legend that surrounded Da Vinci were accentuated by continued commentary in subsequent generations.

Sigmund Freud the father of Psychiatry waded into the debate with his Psychoanalytic analysis of both Da Vinci and his inner motivation for creating the Mona Lisa.

Freud according to Peter Gay researched Da Vinci's writings for some time before arriving at what he thought was the clue to Da Vinci's development in a rare reference to childhood by way of reference to the flight of birds. Freud interpreted the bird reference  as a reference to the vulture, the vulture of Da Vinci's illegitimate birth and being raised by a mother alone early in his life.

Freud speculated that the mother's love pervaded Da Vinci's thinking throughout his life. This interpretation was consistent with the basis of Psychoanalysis which asserted that the problems and the motivations of adulthood were rooted in the events of childhood as expressed in many works of art and in the most famous way in stories of Greek myth.

Freud believed Da Vinci's motivations for painting the Mona Lisa were based in another aspect of his early life. Freud reviewed Da Vinci's childhood as he was taken from his home to live with his father's new wife and over the course of growing up the movement between the homes of his step mother and his real mother, both of whom were loving women.

Gray describes the the effects that Freud believed living with two mothers gave him:

Thus, Leonardo grew up with two mothers. Shortly after 1500, when he came to paint Mona Lisa, her ambiguous, misty smile recalled to him with oppressive vividness the two loving, lovely young women who, together, had presided over his childhood. The creative spark that makes art by leaping between experience and memory gave the portrait of the enigmatic, enticing Mona Lisa its immortality. (Gay 272)

The legend of the Mona Lisa would  grow in the future along with her creator as the painting became an icon in the modern age.

The Mona Lisa today is the best known classical painting in existence. She is everywhere, seen in advertising campaigns, popular images and used to sell all manner of products,
"Corsets, deodorants, cigars, condoms - the Mona Lisa has been used to endorse them all." (Sassoon 40)

Peter Sassoon argues the iconic status of the Mona Lisa had as much to do with a series of events that resulted in an accident of great marketing. Her eventual residence  in the Louvre in France presented the most high profile setting for her display. She was stolen in 1911 and then recovered in 1913, adding to her provocative history.

She also fulfilled many advertising's requirements: the association of high culture, the benign, sexually neutral depiction, and her versatility.

In the 60's and 70's she went on tour to New York and Japan. After this her popularity exploded.

The Mona Lisa since 1980 has been found everywhere from

"air travel (to Paris), rum, oranges, wigs, blood-testing kits, air-conditioning equipment, a dental prosthesis, the Renault Twingo, the cosmetic face mask Mudd, Marriott's Renaissance hotels, computer equipment and the intrauterine device Mona Lisa-CU375". (Sassoon 40)

some believe the publicity has reduced it to iconic status. 

Art historian E. H. Gombrich says the picture has become so worn out by all these references that it's almost impossible "to see it with fresh eyes."

But Gentleman clarifies the problem: viewers may be jaded by the experience or it may be the far more practical reason that there are too many other people in front of it. (Gentleman 102)

The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. The modern accident of marketing does not reduce its stock. The painting, a remarkable achievement by an artist of rare genius, both deserve their acclaim.

Works Cited

Barolsky, Paul. "Giorgio Vasari: Art and History." The Art Bulletin 80.2 (1998): 380+. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Barolsky, Paul. "Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects." The Art Bulletin 80.2 (1998): 380+. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo Da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist. New York: Macmillan, 1939. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Easthope, Antony. The Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1999. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1998. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Gentleman, Amelia. "How She Got Her Smile." The Wilson Quarterly Wntr 2005: 102. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Sassoon, Donald. "Smile! You're on Canvas." New Statesman 24 Sept. 2001: 40. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 . Stites, Raymond S. The Arts and Man. New York; London: Whittlesey House, McGraw-hill Book Company, Inc., 1940. Questia. 11 Apr. 2006 .

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