Composition While we look at the Mona Lisa today and see it’s composition as fairly standard and simple – for it’s time the composition of the Mona Lisa was ground breaking and has set new trends in painting which have been followed for centuries since. One of the compositional elements that the portrait is known for is Leonardo’s use of a pyramidal composition which shows the subject with a wider base at her arms and her hands forming the front corner and everything is in place to draw the eye up her body to her eyes and her infamous smile.
Pose Again – today we look at Mona Lisa’s pose and it seems fairly normal but for it’s day it was quite revolutionary as most portraits at the time were rigid, stiff and quite often profiles rather than front on. In contrast Mona Lisa is somewhat relaxed and at ease as she leans upon the arm of a chair with her hands crossed in a relaxed fashion. While she’s slightly turned to one side she sits open to the viewer and holding their eye. Also unusual for the time was the fact that Leonardo went against the norm with the framing of this image and opted for a three quarter length pose rather than a full length one. In this way he filled the frame with his subject which lends itself to an intimate image and little room for distraction by her context. One last aspect of the pose is that the Leonardo has positioned Mona Lisa’s eyes at the eye level of the one viewing the image. This brings a sense of intimacy to the image as we the viewer gaze directly into her eyes (there’s not a sense that we’re looking down on her or that she’s doing that to us).
Background Much has been written about the background of the Mona Lisa and we can draw out a few things from it for today. One thing worth noting is that while paintings of the day generally had both the subject and background in sharp focus with lots of detail – the background of the Mona Lisa seems to ‘fade’ or become more blurred and out of focus the further from the subject it extends. This was unusual for the time and is an effect that many portrait photographers use today by choosing a large Aperture to make for a blurred background that leaves the viewer of the image to focus upon the subject. While there is definitely points of interest in the background (there’s a lot of debate about whether the two sides of it ‘match’ and whether it’s supposed to be some kind of a fantasy/imaginary background) the colors in it are somewhat bland, muted and subtle – again leaving the focus upon Mona Lisa.
Light One of the things that I like about the Mona Lisa is the way in which light falls upon the subject. Leonardo uses light to draw the eye of the viewer to the parts of the image that he wishes to be highlighted (the face and hands) and balances the image nicely by placing hands and face in positions that counter one another. Leonardo also uses shadow (or a lack of light) to add depth and dimension to different aspects of the image – particularly the area around Mona Lisa’s neck and in the ripples on the dress on her arm.
Framing or arrangement One of the things that I’d not noticed about the Mona Lisa before that i read about today is that on either side of the subject just under and to the side of each of her shoulders there is half of a round ball shape (see the images below on the left). It is believed that what we see of currently of the image is actually slightly smaller than the original. Part of the image was lost when the image was re-framed at some point. What were the balls? The most widely accepted theory is that in the original and full version of the painting two columns extend up from the balls on either side of Mona Lisa. She’s actually sitting on a balcony overlooking the view behind her. You can see the horizontal edge of the balcony extending between the two columns.
Meet the Artist: Born in 1452 in a little town of Vinci, near Florence, Italy. His name translates to Leonardo (from Vinci). As a boy he loved to study and draw nature. He had very little formal education but was from a wealthy family. At 15 he worked as an apprentice to a famous Italian artist but Leonardo’s talent soon surpassed him. At 25 he left his mentor and set up his own business. Although we usually think of Da Vinci an artist, the truth his he had considerable talents in almost anything he did. In fact, he was a genius in many subjects. He was an artist, inventor, musician, scientist, mathematician, physicist and botanist. He was so interested in different subjects; painting was not usually his main focus. There are only 17 paintings attributed to him and many of them are unfinished. Leonardo is considered a Renaissance artist. (Renaissance is a time period of great cultural change during Leonardo’s lifetime. An era best known for the renewed interest in science, exploration and the arts of classical Greece.) He painted mostly portraits and religious paintings and used his scientific knowledge to depict nature and to paint realistically. Later in life he became more focused on science and began to keep in-depth journals on various subjects. In these journals historians found plans for a hang glider, a bicycle, parachute and submarine. This is hundreds of years before they were actually created. They also found detailed anatomy sketches that Leonardo made after studying cadavers. His drawings are so exact they are still used in medical schools today.
For unknown reasons, Leonardo wrote backwards in these journals so they could only be read if held up to a mirror. This may have been because he was protective of the information he discovered or because he was left handed and didn’t want to smudge the ink as he wrote. No one knows for sure. Artist came from all around to be inspired by his work and the first biography was written about him in 1518, one year prior to his death in 1519. It took Leonardo three years to complete Mona Lisa and once he did, he decided to keep her. He was very proud of this work and carried it with him until his death. After that, it went to the King of France and it now it hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Leonardo died May 2, 1519 and was buried in the palace church in Cloux. Possible Questions: Have you seen a picture of this painting before? Do you know its title? Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. It was probably painted as a commissioned portrait of the wife of a wealthy silk merchant named Giacondo. In Italy the painting is called La Giaconda. What do we call a painting of a person, group or people or animal? A portrait. Where can you find texture in this painting? Texture is one of the elements of art. Actual texture means how something really feels – bumpy, smooth, slippery, soft, etc. Implied texture is what we see in this painting – it means the way an object looks as if it would feel, if you could touch it. Da Vinci did not create actual texture by building up paint. Instead, he used this light and shadow technique to show us the soft texture of velvet, the smoothness of her skin and the rugged terrain behind her. Even the transparent veil that covers her face - can you distinguish it from the texture of her hair? Look at the texture of the skin on her face and hands – how is the texture of her clothes different from her skin? Does the brushstrokes show texture or did Leonardo imply it by using light and shadows? What is the background? Do you think the landscape was real or imagined by the artist? Why? Did the artist use mostly light colors or dark ones? How does that affect the mood or feeling of the painting? Does the painting look realistic, surreal, abstract? Da Vinci is well-known for his Realism (a type of art that shows objects exactly as they appear in life.) Where do you see the most shadowing in the painting? Mona’s face and neck, folds of cloth and her fingers. How do these shadows affect how the painting looks? Mona Lisa is famous for a groundbreaking technique Leonardo used. He decided that people do not come with outlines in real life, so instead of drawing an outline of her shape, he painted her form emerging from the canvas by using a contrast of light and shadow. Look at her hands for example, lines were not drawn between her fingers but created through gradually applying color to form light and shadow. This technique is called Chiaroscuro (key-ah-ross- KYOO-roh) and it made the subject look more realistic and three-dimensional. One of the world’s greatest mysteries is, what was Mona Lisa smiling about? What do you think? Not much is known about her, but there were reports that da Vinci hired jesters and musicians to amuse her as she sat for the portrait.