The Mona Lisa, also known as The Gioconda, has gained the status of “the most famous painting in the world” due to a combination of various bohemian predilections and series of events, most of which evolved and took place during the 20th century. “The most famous” is not necessarily the “most beautiful,” as this extensive Wikipedia article appears to imply — but it undoubtedly is beautiful, and will remain such even if it loses its celebrity status.
The portrait, however, is more readily referred to as “enigmatic.” The ever elusive smile, the misty atmosphere, the hazy landscape in the background and, most of all, the ambiguous, inscrutable expression on the face of the sitter entrap the imagination, leaving questions open and fancy disturbed. Mona Lisa’s exceedingly serene, indifferent disposition further deepens the uncertainty and excites curiosity.
Indeed, the long-standing fascination with her visage could have a simple yet powerful psychological reason: we are often most interested in that which doesn’t seem to be interested in us.
The painting divides into three planes, unequal in importance and the space they occupy. First is the landscape in the background: it lends the image depth, as if letting it breathe, and counterbalances the protagonist; it itself divides into two complementing zones, the reddish terrestrial, and the bluish aquatic (and mountainous). The sky appears to combine the two tones, showing a blue azure touched with red and brown hues. Overall, the landscape creates a profound sense of harmony, matching the mystique of the lady with its own foggy atmosphere.
Mona Lisa herself comprises the second, and the primary, plane. Sitting in an upright position, with perhaps just a hint of tension in her neck and back, she as well can be compositionally deconstructed into two main areas: the upper, which includes the face and the chest, and the lower, which includes the arms and the hands. The third plane consists of a few vaguely visible, yet structurally important elements at the lower part of the panel: the armrest (or the seat-back), and the tentatively outlined balcony fence. These two parts delineate the immediate boundaries within which the figure rests.
La Gioconda’s face displays youth and maturity at the same time. The condition of her skin – its freshness can be discerned through the gauze of the sfumato (and 500 years of atmospheric effects) – reveals the former, whereas her confident pose and outlook attest to the latter. Notoriously, she lacks eyebrows and eyelashes.
As the young lady looks slightly to the right of the viewer, her eyes squint a little, miming thoughtfulness – perhaps this is an inner gaze that visualizes a memory, or recalls an event. As a result, she appears to look past the viewer, through us and at the same at us; she is present, but her mind is elsewhere. This very duality acts as a source of endless mystery and fascination, and is one of the reasons for the portrait’s enigma.
Interestingly, there are no apparent wrinkles that usually accompany squinting, making her focus slightly supernatural, as if occurring in and of itself.
A portrait subject’s hands will often reveal more intent than its face. The hands frequently become an iconography agent, holding an object – a letter, a book, a scepter, a weapon, a flower, a ring – that bespeaks not only the meaning, but also the designed mood and the purpose of the painting. Mona Lisa’s hands, completely empty and holding nothing, thus emerge as yet another element that amplifies the enigma.
While Gioconda’s palms do not hold any iconographic detail, the way she folds and rests them can betray character traits. They can – but don’t, as what we see matches exactly her countenance – a serene, restrained cross that withholds more than it shows. Resulting is a harmonious psychological continuity that, along with the landscape, creates a consummate vision that remains largely impenetrable, however compositionally consistent.
Sfumato, a technique invented by Leonardo da Vinci, involves painting a gradation of shadows to create a subtle haze (akin to the English “fume” etymologically, sfumato means “smoky”) over the relevant area, usually where various contours and lines intersect and merge. This softens the linear component and yields a more gradual, painterly effect, sometimes exceptionally subtle and delicate. The technique is somewhat similar to the blurring effect in modern image manipulation software.
In the overall scheme the use of sfumato produces a complex local interplay of light and shadow. It is a very dynamic visual device that can be especially effective in a portrait – an essentially static image. Sometimes, perhaps just like in the software, it can be overused, and establish an incompatibility between the light source and the sheer amount and richness of the shadows.
In Mona Lisa sfumato frames the sitter’s eyes (almost like an eye makeup), the mouth, and the entire face oval, as the gradations of shade weave a mutable, shifting grid. While shadows underscore the physical reality of the model, their fuzzy softness places her in a kind of remote, removed space. She hence becomes both attainable and unattainable; worldly feminine and ethereally angelic, gently intimate and coolly aloof.
Leonardo painted three other female portraits, all of which evince a considerably more legible degree of expressiveness, be it a display of pride and self-worth, or humility and nobility. They are easier to read, but they are, perhaps, less interesting because of that, giving away too much.
And yet the artist didn’t start a trend in portraiture where painters would seek to enshroud their models in mystery; on the contrary, psychological precision rather than ambiguity has become the universally sought for standard, including by some of the greatest visual artists.
Perhaps for that reason – one that has had 500 years to be overturned, yet remained steadfast – the Mona Lisa remains unique – daring to ask whether she was real at all.