What Makes the Mona Lisa a Great Painting: A Deep Dive

This past sum­mer we fea­tured a short video intro­duc­tion to the Mona Lisa here on Open Cul­ture. You’d think that if any paint­ing did­n’t need an intro­duc­tion, that would be the one. But the video’s cre­ator James Payne showed many of us just how much we still have to learn about Leonar­do’s most famous work of art — and indeed, per­haps the most famous work by any artist. On his Youtube chan­nel Great Art Explained, Payne offers clear and pow­er­ful analy­ses of paint­ings from van Gogh’s The Star­ry Night and Hop­per’s Nighthawks to Warhol’s Mar­i­lyn Dip­tych and Picas­so’s Guer­ni­ca. But there are some images to which a fif­teen-minute video essay can’t hope to do jus­tice.

In those cas­es, Payne has been known to fol­low up with a deluxe expand­ed edi­tion. Tak­ing on Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights, he fol­lowed up three indi­vid­ual fif­teen-minute videos — for a trip­tych, a neat union of form and sub­stance — with a full-length treat­ment of the whole work.

Payne’s full-length ver­sion of his Mona Lisa video more than dou­bles the length of the orig­i­nal. “This is the more com­pre­hen­sive ver­sion I always want­ed to do,” he notes, adding that it “uses some of the infor­ma­tion from the first film (but in high­er res­o­lu­tion with bet­ter sound and with clear­er graph­ics), as well as answer­ing the hun­dreds of ques­tions: Why does­n’t she have eye­brows? Is it a self-por­trait? Is she only famous because she was stolen? How do we know what he was think­ing?”

This time around, Payne has more to say about how Leonar­do cre­at­ed such a com­pelling por­trait on a tech­ni­cal lev­el, but also why he came to paint it in the first place. On top of that, the expand­ed for­mat gives him time to exam­ine the much more con­ven­tion­al por­traits Leonar­do’s con­tem­po­raries were paint­ing at the time, as well as what’s known as the Pra­do Mona Lisa. A depic­tion of the same sit­ter that may even have been paint­ed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly by one of Leonar­do’s stu­dents, it makes for an illu­mi­nat­ing object of com­par­i­son. Payne also gets into the 1911 theft and recov­ery that ulti­mate­ly did a great deal for the paint­ing’s rep­u­ta­tion, as well as its 1963 exhi­bi­tion in Amer­i­ca that, thanks to tele­vi­sion, turned it into a mass-media icon. By now we’ve all had more glimpses of the Mona Lisa more times than we can remem­ber, but it takes enthu­si­asm like Payne’s to remind us of all the ways we can tru­ly see it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Why Leonar­do da Vinci’s Great­est Paint­ing is Not the Mona Lisa

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

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

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.

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