Beyond the Paint: The Mona Lisa

Written by Erika Miller.

She is not extravagantly adorned with lavish jewelry or lush colors, her hair is not stylistically coifed, and there is nothing in her dress to suggest great wealth or importance. Even so, at least 30,000 people from all over the globe visit her daily at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. She is known to the world as Mona Lisa and she represents the two-dimensional likeness of a woman from a bygone era. Despite her lack of sentience, for five-hundred years the Mona Lisa has enthralled the likes of kings and scholars. She has been studied, copied, and parodied for decades, but despite her renown, only few can say they know the woman behind the smile.

Leonardo da Vinci “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo” oil on wood panel, c. 1503-1519 ©RMN – Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Michel Urtado

The Woman and the Artist

So, who was it that inspired the great Italian master himself, Leonardo da Vinci, to create such a cultural impact in one painting? Her name was Lisa Giocondo, the wife of a silk merchant who commissioned the painting in 1503, for their newly purchased home. Although Lisa had become an aristocrat, her life was not one that would cause obvious sparks of inspiration for Leonardo’s artistic abilities to flourish. In reality, the portrait of Lisa Giocondo was a way for Leonardo to create a technical feat undiscovered by the art community of the Italian Renaissance. Like Italy, other countries in Europe were exploring new modes of art. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands for instance, were forging their own renaissance. The influx of trade between northern and southern regions of Europe meant that artists were exposed to new and varying art techniques.

The Mona Lisa was Leonardo’s opportunity to experiment with a different kind of portraiture, like that seen in the works of Dutch artist, Hans Memling.

The Mona Lisa exhibited the first time in Italian art where the subject was depicted in an almost full-scale, life-like representation, as well as her eye level gaze allowing her to make contact with the viewer. The use of oil paint in the portrait, a popular medium with artists in northern Europe, aided Leonardo to perfect a painting technique called sfumato, a kind of shading that creates a blurring effect, and is what enhances the believability of the Mona Lisa’s realistic features. Additionally, Leonardo implemented the use of a natural landscape behind Lisa with a hint of architecture surrounding her, giving the impression that she is on her balcony in her new home.

The Allure

Naturally, it would be easy to assume that the Mona Lisa’s popularity grew because of the technical accomplishment achieved by Leonardo. But what captivated her viewers was not the artistic genius of Leonardo but the essence he gave to his portrait. Giorgio Vasari, famed writer and historian during the 16th century, complimented on the liveliness of the painting soon after its completion. Vasari was not the only one to be lured by the content gaze and knowing smile of Leonardo’s Lisa; France’s King François I kept the painting in his apartments at Fontainebleau and later King Louis XIV kept her in his court of Versailles. She even captured the heart of famed looter and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, staying with him until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 when she was then established at the Louvre Museum. Despite enchanting past rulers in their homes and inspiring the educated elite in the museum, the Mona Lisa did not become beloved by the general public until one fateful August day in 1911.

The Theft

The Louvre at this time was not only the largest museum in the world, but also one of the least secure ones. In years prior, it had seen the theft and vandalism of various pieces of art. The vandalism, in particular, was a great concern to the museum, so measures were taken to ensure the safety of numerous paintings by installing a glass fixture to keep them from harm. The Mona Lisa was one of these paintings. And yet, on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, the Mona Lisa was discovered missing by museum officials but by then she had unknowingly been gone for almost twenty-four hours.

By the end of the week, her disappearance was in every newspaper around the world and a detailed investigation to the likes of Sherlock Holmes had begun.

In hopes of finding the painting in a hidden cranny of the sprawling museum, the Louvre closed its doors to the public but unfortunately, was left with nothing but the shadow of a two and a half feet tall frame and the certainty of theft. What the museum did find when it reopened a week later, were throngs of people wanting to validate the claims of the newspapers by viewing the now empty wall.

These were not just the educated or the elite who had sought out the Mona Lisa in the past, it was also anyone who read the news. This meant that for the first time, people who had never before seen Lisa’s intense gaze or wondered at her smirk, were now contemplating her theft and mourning the artistic loss.

While the police investigated all of Paris, they also started creating a list of suspects including the employees of the museum and local artists wanting a piece of inspiration from one of the great masters; even Pablo Picasso and his vagabond group of creative friends were serious suspects. At a time when copying and collecting art had become fashionable among old and new elite, it was impossible to know if the painting was still with the thief or sold to the highest bidder.

Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library no. 10031014