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Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was a renowned Italian artist who also had interests in cartography, history, writing, botany, astronomy, geology, anatomy, literature, engineering, mathematics, music, science, architecture, sculpting, painting and invention. He lived between 15 April 1452 and 2 May 1519. Leonardo was born in Vinci, Republic of Florence, which is the present day Italy and died in Amboise, Kingdom of France (Magnano 5). Leonardo had a keen intellect and curious mind that led him to have interests in the laws of nature and science. His undertook a lot of studies in sciences, which had a great influence in his works as a painter, draftsman, military engineer and inventor. Leonardo was born as an illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci and a peasant girl named Caterina. He was educated in Verrocchio’s studio, a well known Florentine painter. A considerable amount of Leonardo’s earlier working life was spent in Ludovico il Moro in Milan. Later on, he worked in Venice, Bologna, and Rome. King Francois 1 gave him a home in France where he spent his final years (Brigstoke 43). This paper will focus on Leonardo da Vinci and his artwork, Mona Lisa in particular. Leonardo’s style and the movement to which this work belongs will also be discussed. A detailed analysis of the painting Mona Lisa will be given by explaining what is seen, what is going on in the picture, the medium used, when it was made, and if it has practical purpose or is strictly decorative. Finally, comparisons to other artworks will be made.
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Leonardo was often described as a Renaissance man primarily because of his curiosity and ingenuity that led him to invent many things. He is considered one of the greatest painters of all time. His innovations in many different fields also made people consider him one of the most diversely talented people the world has ever known. Ideas such as the double hull, the calculator, the military tank, the helicopter and concentrated solar power were all conceptualized by Leonardo. Even though he wore many hats in many different fields, Leonardo was known mainly to be a painter. Some of his most well known works of art include Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the Vitruvian Man, and Lady with an Ermine among others. His painting, Mona Lisa, is perhaps the most famous work of art in history (Priwer & Cynthia 3).
Mona Lisa is described as the most parodied, the most sung, the most written about, the most visited, and the best known work of art of all time in the entire world. The Mona Lisa is a half-length portrait painting of Lisa Gherardini. The painting is believed to have been created between 1503 and 1506 but Leonardo is believed to have continued working on it for almost 20 more years because of procrastination. Currently, the painting is kept in Louvre, Paris but was produced in Florence where Leonardo lived during the time of its painting. King Francis I acquired the painting after some time. This makes it the property of the Republic of France. The country put it on permanent display in Paris. It has been at the Louvre Museum since 1719. Mona Lisa is also referred to as La Giaconda in Italian or La Jaconde in French because it is thought to be a portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo whose name was Lisa (Capra 82). The word Mona is simply a short form of Madonna which means a lady, even though this has been controversial for some time, only adding to the lure, fascination and mystery that the painting has been attracting over all these years. The painting belongs to the high renaissance movement. It was painted using oil on wood as a portrait art. Mona Lisa is a good example of the oil painting commonly referred to as sfumato. This style of painting entails the imperceptible and smooth transition from one color to the next by using ultra-fine tonal shades.
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A detailed analysis of the painting reveals the picture of a woman who is dressed in the fashion of Florentine during her days. The background is an icy mountainous landscape achieved by Leonardo applying the sfumato technique through balancing of heavy and soft shading. It is most probably an imaginary landscape. There are also many winding paths and a bridge can be seen from the distance. The woman in the painting has a strong resemblance to Virgin Mary. At that time, she was considered the ideal symbol of womanhood. The woman in the picture sits upright in an armchair. Her hands are folded, perhaps to depict her reserved nature. She has fixed her stare on the observer or perhaps the painter. There are two dark pillar bases on both sides of the picture. The woman appears to be seated in an open veranda or terrace. The painting becomes more mysterious due to the fact that the horizon line at the background is placed at the same level with the eyes of the woman. By doing this, the figure has been linked to the landscape. The lady in the painting does not have clearly visible eyelashes or eyebrows. There are several researchers who claim that this was a common practice at that time for women to pluck of their eyebrows and eyelashes. However, other critics claim that Leonardo had included eyelashes and eyebrows as evidenced by scans of the picture but they faded away due to chemicals used to preserve the picture ((Magnano 39).
I believe the picture has a practical purpose. It could not have been this big if it was simply for decorative purpose. The painting measures 77 by 53 centimeters. It popularity is unmatched because it is one of the most famous paintings in the world, meaning it is quite a big deal. There are a number of things that remain mysterious about this picture. Leonardo chose to deviate from the norm by painting a woman who gazes directly at the viewers. This was considered an abomination at that time. The woman demeanor also appears to be calm, assured and content, something that was expected to be seen in men and not women during that time. The woman’s half-smile is enigmatic because it leaves one wondering whether she is smiling or not. Mystery also stems from the fact that the woman’s hands look rather unreal and lifeless. They appear as though they do not belong to the body of the woman.
Mona Lisa can be compared to works of Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere and Lorenzo di Credi which were produced in the late 15th century. These works also depicted a three-quarter profile of a sitter which was common with Flemish models. Also, the similarity stems from the fact that the works of Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere and Lorenzo di Credi also had vertical columns on both sides of the panel (Bayer 19). Other works with similarity to Mona Lisa are the portrait of Benededetto Portinari by Hans Memling in 1487 and the pendant portraits by Sebastiano Mainardi which also made use of open verandas creating the effect of linking the sitter to the landscape. Mona Lisa is however different from other works of that time since Leonardo went against the norm by how he depicted a woman. At that time, a woman was not supposed to gaze at people directly. A woman was also not expected to sit in the calm, composed and confident posture that Mona Lisa is seated.
In conclusion, Mona Lisa remains a great piece of art to date, many centuries after it was produced. I chose this painting for analysis because it has managed to stand the test of time and maintain its relevance and appeal centuries later. The mysteries surrounding various aspects of the painting have made it to maintain its appeal and fascination because of its ability to bring curiosity to people who view it. The fact that the work has survived for more than 500 years makes it an important piece of art that art students can learn a lot from to date. The unique style of Leonardo and the messages communicated in the picture are also fascinating.
- Bayer, Andrea. Painters of reality: the legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. Print.
- Brigstoke, Hugh. The Oxford Companion the Western Art. U.S.: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
- Capra, Fritjof. The Science of Leonardo. U.S.: Doubleday, 2007. Print.
- Magnano, Milena. Leonardo, collana I Geni dell’arte. Italy: Mondadori Arte, 2007. Print.
- Priwer, Shana & Phillips, Cynthia. The Everything Da Vinci Book: Explore the Life and Times of the Ultimate Renaissance Man. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2006. Print.