What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Painting?: An Explanation in 15 Minutes

The Mona Lisa may be on dis­play at the Lou­vre, but best of luck appre­ci­at­ing it there. The first obsta­cle, quite lit­er­al­ly, is the crowd that’s always massed around it (or, in the time before social-dis­tanc­ing poli­cies, was always massed around it). Even if you maneu­ver your way to the front of the cam­era-phoned throng, the paint­ing itself hangs with­in a thick glass case — can’t have a repeat of the 1911 theft — and has dimen­sions in any event much small­er than peo­ple tend to imag­ine. After all, we come to know Leonar­do da Vin­ci’s most famous paint­ing through cul­tur­al ref­er­ence and par­o­dy, but also through large-scale repro­duc­tion, the bet­ter to under­stand the painstak­ing and inno­v­a­tive artis­tic labor that makes the Mona Lisa worth flock­ing to in the first place.

Still, there are those who come away from the Mona Lisa — assum­ing they can man­age to get back out through the mass of human­i­ty — won­der­ing what all the fuss is about. It was for them, pre­sum­ably, that cura­tor James Payne chose that paint­ing as the first sub­ject of his Youtube series Great Art Explained.

As he would in his sub­se­quent episodes (such as his three-part series, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, about Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights), Payne casts off the accu­mu­lat­ed his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tion and oth­er var­i­ous forms of cul­tur­al bag­gage to find the work’s artis­tic core. In the case of the Mona Lisa, not just “the great­est psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait ever paint­ed” but “the end prod­uct of the great­est inquis­i­tive mind in his­to­ry,” that still leaves much to dis­cuss.

In under fif­teen min­utes, Payne explains a host of the tech­niques Leonar­do employed in paint­ing the Mona Lisa that no artist of his time and place had used before — and indeed, that in some cas­es no oth­er artists mas­tered until long there­after. These include work­ing on top of an under-lay­er of white paint that appears to be “light­ing Mona Lisa from with­in,” strip­ping his sub­ject of “all the usu­al high-sta­tus sym­bols” usu­al­ly seen in aris­to­crat­ic por­trai­ture, depict­ing her at three-quar­ters length rather than in full frame, mak­ing the back­ground fade into the dis­tance while also sug­gest­ing motion, and com­bin­ing the tech­niques of low-con­trast sfu­ma­to and high-con­trast chiaroscuro. And only a painter with Leonar­do’s anatom­i­cal knowl­edge could have exe­cut­ed that famous­ly sub­tle smile, which appears and van­ish­es again depend­ing on which part of the Mona Lisa we look at — no mat­ter whether we’re doing it at the Lou­vre or on Youtube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Mona Lisa Went From Being Bare­ly Known, to Sud­den­ly the Most Famous Paint­ing in the World (1911)

Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Paint a First Mona Lisa Before The Mona Lisa?

Orig­i­nal Por­trait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Lay­ers of da Vinci’s Mas­ter­piece

When Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire Were Accused of Steal­ing the Mona Lisa (1911)

Mark Twain Skew­ers Great Works of Art: The Mona Lisa (“a Smoked Had­dock!”), The Last Sup­per (“a Mourn­ful Wreck”) & More

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Dorian Glass says:

    Utter­ly bril­liant exposé / under­stand­ing of Leonar­do / Mona Lisa — a must-view!

  • Pınar Akın says:

    Leonar­do Da Vin­ci hakkın­da ne kGüven­li­adar da çok atıp tutan var, hayret. Leonar­do Da Vin­ci adını türeterek ilk kez kul­lanan bir soy­lu kız olarak sanat­sal dehamın karşılığın­da hiçbir şey kazan­mamış olmam, dünyayı yöneten şey­tan­ların mar­ife­tidir. Şu anda İst­anb­ul’da yaşıy­o­rum.

  • Mary says:

    Search for @tripimprover at Insta­gram. It’s the best art pro­file there. They have an YouTube chan­nel too where they explain lots of paints, artists, eras, etc (I think 2 or 3 per day). It’s real­ly amaz­ing! If you like art, you will like it. 😁

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.