Our first trip to Paris was on our honeymoon. We made a beeline to see her at the Louvre Museum.
The Mona Lisa is a relatively small painting in a museum two miles long full of large, detailed works of art. The painting is cracked, obscure lines shape the face and there is haze in the background.
Standing in front of this painting that the entire planet is familiar with, I wondered why it is world famous.
The paintings next to the Mona Lisa on the wall of a hallway were much larger, and appeared to use the same lady model. Mona Lisa was 2 1/2 feet tall and less than 2 feet across. So again, why is this relatively small painting ultimately iconic?
I gazed, I stared, I racked my tiny brain, then decided that I did not have the wherewithal to understand why. Yes, of course I had heard about the enigmatic smile, or was it a look? I lacked the artistic training or natural intuition to delve beyond that.
I simply had to minimally understand her claim on fame. I couldn’t leave without comprehending her universal appeal.
Off we went to join a guided tour. A French artist took us around the Louvre. When we came to the Mona Lisa and she (our artist guide) spoke, the painting began to open up and reveal itself in front of my eyes layer by layer. The mystery was partially peeled away. My brain played catch-up with her words. (Our guide spoke in English with a delightful French accent).
In the painting, Lisa is standing on a balcony. The background below and far behind converges as it approaches her. Two paths are visible, one on her left and the other one on her right, drawn from quite a distance behind her; a bridge can be seen far far away over her left shoulder. A distant landscape behind a subject was unique in 1503, and many artists have used this concept since.
Her most discussed feature is of course the enigmatic smile, sometimes interpreted as a knowing look. To me, she doesn’t seem unhappy, she is actually beaming.
Although the lines framing her face are mostly obscure, the face itself is striking and real with a clearly realistic expression on it.
Da Vinci’s mastery with the brush and his technique created excitement during the renaissance, because of its novelty. This technique included sfumato, or subtle changes in light and shadow that gives shape to the face in particular. There is even evidence of her skull under her forehead.
The color of the distant landscape is in contrast to the color in the foreground, where it concentrates until it reaches a crescendo around her person.
I didn’t quite agree with our guide’s comment that it is also unique that Mona Lisa’s eyes follow the viewer, no matter which side of the painting he or she is.
The Mona Lisa is painted on a wooden panel (white Lombardy poplar) instead of on canvas, as was common at the time. The cracks on the painting may have been contained because of its wood surface.
This much larger portrait by Raphael titled “Young woman on a balcony“ was on the wall right next to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, and appears to have the same model.
We‘ve visited Mona quite a few times over the years, and our viewings have become progressively more encumbered. The first time we saw her, she was on a wall of a long hallway, between other paintings. I could have touched her frame; there were no barriers, no museum guards around.
The last time we saw her, she was placed majestically in the middle of a major hall, alone by her tiny self in her bullet proof frame, set in an enormous panel. There were barriers to the side and in front of viewers. We were unable to get close, but the guards let our six year old through to the front.