The secrets behind her smile

If I ask you, what is the world’s most famous painting? No doubt your answer will be the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa is of course the world’s most famous painting and one of the greatest masterpieces in the world. At a glance, this 77cm by 63cm size oil painting, is not that mesmerising, nor does it capture the viewer instantly, compared to many other masterpieces of the world of art.

 It also disappoints you as you first see her at the Louver Museum, in Paris. This is because many enter the place with the intention of seeing the ‘World’s Most Famous Painting’ and end up seeing a small dull oil painting, hanging on a large wall, all covered and protected with glass.

But, there is something strangely magical, intriguingly enchanting, and mystically mysterious about the Mona Lisa. The more you know her, the deeper you fall in love with her. The more you look into her eyes, the more her stare captures your entire soul. Her smile, full of secrets, will never leave your dreams. If you walk closer, or far, towards the left or right, her strange eyes will always be looking at you.

Who is she? And why is she so famous? How has this simple pale lady mesmerised the entire world for centuries?

This is why Mona Lisa is ‘The Mona Lisa’, the world’s most famous painting.

Let us find out why Mona Lisa is so famous, what is so enchanting about her and what great secrets and stories she hides behind those sharp staring eyes, her tight stern smile, her bold and strange posture, and the unusual background behind her.

 Mona Lisa is also the finest example for today’s artists, to learn what a true artist is and what a true masterpiece is.

 Mona Lisa is the epitome of classical art

Come, let us travel to Paris, Italy, America, and then back to Paris, to meet, the mesmerising Mona Lisa and the mastermind behind her, probably one of the greatest artists that have ever walked the earth, Leonardo da Vinci.

Modern art historians explain Mona Lisa as the greatest psychological painting ever painted and portrait so ahead of its time. Mona Lisa is not only famous for its perfectionism but also because of the myths, and unexplained stories that are woven around her.

From Italy to France

In 1516 da Vinci who was in his 60s moved to France as he was offered the position of court painter, architect, and engineer by the king of France and that is how Mona Lisa ended up being in France.

 What is unique about da Vinci is that he was one of the few artists who saw and practically proved the link between art and science, instead of seeing them as two distant and distinctive disciplines. Simply put, da Vinchi explained the science behind art, and his this vision and understanding of art, make his works great masterpieces.

Mona Lisa; a real woman transformed into a myth

Da Vinci used all his scientific knowledge to create Mona Lisa and it is said that for 16 years he continued painting her.

 Who is she? For years, Mona Lisa was a mysterious woman. However, now it is clarified that she was an Italian noblewoman who lived during the artist’s time. Often known as the first Art Historian in Europe, Giorgio Vasari writes in 1550 in his book on renaissance artists, that, “Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.”

It is also being verified that da Vinci started this in 1503, through further research.

Still, art historians are unable to answer why da Vinci painted an ordinary woman, as he was used to paint for royalty and religious topics. Some say that he deliberately chose Mona Lisa as he wanted to try out new ideas and saw this as an opportunity to try out his new ideas about the science of painting.

 Modern studies and scans have also revealed that there is another sketch underneath the painting. This sketch has been reconstructed and modern scholars believe that this could be the real face of the historical Mona Lisa.

Painting techniques make it a great masterpiece

Mona Lisa is painted on a cloth made of a thin grain fabric of a poplar tree. Da Vinci had applied a thin layer of lead white on the fabric.

 What is so special about the painting technique of the Mona Lisa is that it is painted with very thin layers of paint, mixed with oil. Each layer had very little pigment and a large amount of oil. These are known as semi-transparent glazes and are painted over and over again on top of each other.

These layers would bring more depth and texture to the painting. The lead white layer he had applied on the cloth would give an illuminating effect within the painting.

Modern scientific analysis shows that da Vinci used up to 30 different layers of painted glaze on Mona Lisa. These 30 layers are so thin that, it is only 40 micrometres of paint.

These glazers are of different pigments and different amounts of oil. As the pigments are of different colours, the light that reflects is different and lightens the painting in different ways. This has been the usual style of da Vinci and he applied these layers as extremely thin layers, sometimes even invisible and it took him years to finish one painting.

Da Vinci, a master of using the brush, used various brush strokes to create various effects. Instead of using smooth, methodical brush strokes, he used irregular brush strokes to create the life-like effect of Mona Lisa’s skin.

Art historians have identified the following techniques da Vinci used on Mona Lisa;

Verdaccio technique – Applying a green paint layer before painting and using it as the base of a painting. This was especially used to paint human figures. He believed that there is a great amount of green colour on human skin.

Chiaroscuro technique – Da Vinci contrasts prominent shades of light and dark to create the illusion of three-dimensional forms.

Sfumato technique – ‘Sfumato’ means smoky and it is a blending technique for softening the transition between colours to avoid sharp, unnatural lines. This is why Mona Lisa doesn’t have hard edges or sharp outlines on her.

This very Sfumato technique is one reason, explained by modern art historians, why Mona Lisa is unique. This blended technique is why her eyes and smile have a fuzzy, ambiguous look and the very reason that brings life to the painting.

Modern scientific studies have scanned and compared portrait paintings of contemporary artists with the Mona Lisa and these studies are interesting. In portraits such as by Raffael, the scan shows sharp edges or outlines, while Mona Lisa completely fades away blending with the background, leaving no sharp outlines.

To be continued

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

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