Washington State University

Ask Dr. Universe


January 6th, 2012

Dear Dr. Universe,
I want to know why is the Mona Lisa painting so famous?

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. Musée du Louvre, Paris

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. Musée du Louvre, Paris

According to my friend Carol Ivory, there are probably a number of reasons. Professor Ivory is an art historian. She focuses her research mostly on the art of the Marquesas Islands, which are part of French Polynesia, which sounds like an excellent thing to focus on. But she also knows something about the Mona Lisa.

You probably realize there was a lot going on around the time when Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. We think he painted it in Italy sometime between 1503 and 1506. This was the height of what we call the RENAISSANCE, which was a time when all sorts of new thinking in art and science was happening in Europe. It would have been a very interesting time to live.

At the same time Leonardo was busy painting the Mona Lisa, Columbus was on his last voyage, to Honduras and Panama. Also, Amerigo Vespucci took his second voyage to South America, where he figured out that it was a separate continent and not linked to India.

Other great artists who were working at the time included Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Durer. Just a few years later, Copernicus figured out that the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun.

But back to Leonardo! Leonardo was one sharp guy. Not only was he a painter and inventor, he was a big-time mountain climber. And a good singer. Only thing, says Professor Ivory, he was long on ideas, but short on execution. In other words, he actually didn’t finish all that many paintings, only about 30 or so.

Now admittedly, that’s 30 more than I’ve done. The point is, however, that the Mona Lisa did get finished, and it’s really good. Leonardo himself must have thought it was pretty good. When he moved from Italy to France, where he was summoned just to keep the king company, he took the painting along.

This actually wasn’t that big of a deal. The painting itself is not all that big. It’s measures only about 31inches by 21 inches. In fact, a lot of people are disappointed when they see the real thing at the Louvre in Paris. There it is behind a big sheet of glass and surrounded by eight million people, all trying to get a look at this little dinky painting. Professor Ivory suggests if you go to the Louvre and are interested in Leonardo, check out his less famous paintings.

But back to the question. What makes it so appealing?

Even if you are completely art-deprived, you still probably are familiar with the Mona Lisa. You see her on olive oil bottles and all sorts of things, and lots of other artists have borrowed her image and changed it around. For example, in 1919 Marcel Duchamp painted a moustache on her. You’re probably thinking, I could have done that. You’re right, you could, but Marcel beat you to it.

Anyway, sometimes it seems everywhere you look, there’s the Mona Lisa!

But why?

Most paintings of people before Leonardo were very stiff and formal. The people were either heroes or goddesses or some other sort of bigshot. Often they were painted in profile, which means from the side.

Not only is Mona Lisa an ordinary person (she was probably married to a local businessman), she’s looking right at you.

And then there’s THE SMILE. Everybody talks about how odd her smile is. Well, I don’t think it’s all that odd. But it’s certainly intriguing. Here she is staring right at us and smiling that little smile, like SHE KNOWS SOMETHING.

So what does she know? Some people have guessed that she was pregnant. Or that maybe she and Leonardo were a little too friendly.

But their ideas are worth about as much as yours and mine. And truth is, according to Vasari, who lived at the same time as Leonardo, the painter hired musicians and “buffoons” to entertain Mona Lisa while he painted her. Hardly anybody ever smiled in earlier paintings, and he was determined to do something different!

Leonardo’s painting changed the way portraits were done, says Professor Ivory. He got into her personality and MAKES us wonder what she’s thinking. That, plus the kind of technique he used (called sfumato) to make the painting look soft and comfortable, PLUS the beautiful lighting, is why we like it so much. And that’s about it!