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.

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

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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.

Download Great Works of Art from 40+ Museums Worldwide: Explore Artvee, the New Art Search Engine

Dilbert creator Scott Adams once wrote of his early experiences introducing the World Wide Web to others. “In 1993, there were only a handful of Web sites you could access, such as the Smithsonian’s exhibit of gems. Those pages were slow to load and crashed as often as they worked.” But those who witnessed this technology in action would invariably “get out of their chairs their eyes like saucers, and they would approach the keyboard. They had to touch it themselves. There was something about the internet that was like catnip.” In the intervening decades, the technology powering the internet has only improved, and we’ve all felt how greatly that catnip-like effect has intensified. And the Smithsonian, as we’ve featured here on Open Culture, is still there — now with much more online than gems.

Today, the Smithsonian’s impressive online collections are accessible through Artvee, a new search engine for downloadable high-resolution, public domain artworks. So are the collections of more than 40 other international institutions, from the New York Public Library and the Art Institute of Chicago to the Rijksmuseum and Paris Musées, many of which had little or no online presence back in the early 1990s.

In recent years, they’ve gotten quite serious indeed about digitizing their holdings and making those digitizations freely available to the world, uploading them by the thousand, even by the million. With so many artworks and artifacts already up, and surely much more to come, the question becomes how best to navigate not just one of these collections, but all of them.

Artvee constitutes one answer to this question. Using its search engine, writes Denise Tempone at Domestika, “you can filter categories such as abstract art, landscape, mythology, drawings, illustrations, botany, fashion, figurative art, religion, animal, desserts, history, Japanese art, and still life. The site also gives you the option to search by artist. You will find works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Raphael, and Sandro Botticelli in this amazing gallery.” Other collections, created by Artvee itself as well as by its users, include “illustrations from fairy tales; covers of popular American songs; and some even more peculiar ones, such as adverts selling bicycles that are over a hundred years old.”

The variety of artists browsable on Artvee also includes Alphonse Mucha, Edvard Munch, and Hilma af Kint; other collections offer the wonders of political illustrations, book promo posters, and NASA’s visions of the future. All of the items within, it bears repeating, are in the public domain or distributed under a Creative Commons license, meaning you can use them not just as sources of inspiration but as ingredients in your own work as well, a possibility few us could have imagined at the dawn of the Web. Back then, you’ll recall, we all used a variety of different tools and portals to navigate the internet, according to personal preference. The emerging field of art search engines, which includes not just Artvee but other options like Museo, may remind us of those days — and how far the internet has come since.

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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.

The Age of Cathedrals: A Free Online Course from Yale University

From Yale professor Howard Bloch comes Age of Cathedrals, an online course that offers “an introduction to some of the most astonishing architectural monuments the world has ever known—Gothic cathedrals,” including Notre Dame, Chartres, and Saint-Denis. The course description adds: “We shall study the art, literature, intellectual life, economics, and new social arrangements that arose in the shadow of the cathedrals and that were such an important part of the revival of cities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The goal of the course is a better appreciation of the High Middle Ages, a world that is still recognizably our own.”

You can take Age of Cathedrals for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Age of Cathedrals has been added to our list of Free History Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Enroll in Harvard’s Free Online Architecture Course: An Introduction to the History & Theory of Architecture

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European Paintings: From Leonardo to Rembrandt to Goya–A Free Online Course from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M

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A Side Splitting Medieval TikTok Account: Get a Laugh at Medieval Yoga Poses & Much More

@greedypeasant🧘‍♀️ Medieval Yoga 🧘 #medievaltiktok #yoga #yogalover #peacewithin #fyp #foryou #foryoupage♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

TikTok, the short-form video-sharing platform, is an arena where the young dominate — last summer, The New York Times reported that over a third of its 49 million daily users in the US were aged 14 or younger.

Yet somehow, a fully grown medieval peasant has become one of its most compelling presences, breezily sharing his yoga regimen, above, his obsession with tassels and ornate sleeves, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s plans to upcycle his era’s torture devices as New York City subway exit gates.

30-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Tyler Gunther views his creation, Greedy Peasant, as “the manifestation of all the strange medieval art we now enjoy in meme form”:

Often times medieval history focuses on royals, wars, popes and plagues. With this peasant guide, we get to experience the world through the lens of a queer artist who is just trying to make sure everyone is on time for their costume fittings for the Easter pageant. 

Earlier, Gunther’s medieval fixation found an outlet in comics that he posted to Instagram.

Then last February, he found himself quarantining in an Australian hotel room for 2 weeks prior to performing in the Adelaide Festival as part of The Plastic Bag Store, artist Robin Frohardt’s alternately hilarious and sobering immersive supermarket installation:

My quarantine plans had been to work on a massive set of illustrations and teach myself the entire Adobe Creative Suite. Instead I just wandered from one corner of the hotel room to the next and stared at the office building directly outside my window. About 4 days in, Robin texted, “Now is your time to make a TikTok.” I had avoided it for so long. I always had an excuse and I was genuinely confused about how the app worked. But with no alternatives left I made a few videos “just to test out some of the filters” and I was instantly hooked. 

Now, a green screen and a set of box lights are permanently installed in his Brooklyn studio so he can film whenever inspiration strikes, provided it’s not too steamy to don the tights, cowls, wigs and woolens that are an integral part of Greedy Peasant’s look.

@greedypeasant🕷🕷🕷 (to be continued) #medievaltiktok #fyp #foryoupage #foryou #spiderman♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

One of Gunther’s most eye popping creations came about when Greedy Peasant answered an ad post in the town square seeking a Spider Man (i.e., a man with spiders) to combat a bug infestation:

As a former costume design student, I’m intrigued by how superhero uniforms fit within the very conservative world of Western men’s fashion. We’re supposed to believe these color blocked bodysuits are athletic and high tech. These manly men don’t wear them just because they look great in them, they wear them for our protection and the greater good.  But what if one superhero did value style over substance? Would he still retain his authoritative qualities if his super suit was embroidered and beaded and dripping with tassels? This medievalist believes so. 

About that tassel obsession

To me tassels represent ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake at its peak. This decorative concept is so maligned in our current age. 21st century design trends are so sleek and smooth, which does make our lives practical and efficient. But soon we’ll all be dead. Medieval artisans seemed to understand this on some level. I think if iPhones were sold in the middle ages they would have 4 tassels on each corner. Why? Because it would look very nice. A tassel looks beautiful as a piece of static sculpture. It adds an air of authority and polish to whatever object it is attached to. If that were all they provided us it would be enough. But then suddenly you give your elbow a little flick and before you know it your sleeve tassels are in flight! They are performing a personal ballet with their little strings going wherever the choreography may take them. It’s a gift.

@greedypeasant(not) FACTS. ##medievaltiktok ##nyc ##newyorkcity ##nychistory ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

Gunther’s keen eye extends to his green screen backgrounds, many of which are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online image collection.

He also shoots on location when the situation warrants:

Especially in New York City, where it seems like every neighborhood has at least one building dressed up to look as if it survived the Black Plague. I love this blatantly false illusion of a heroic past. We American’s know it’s a façade. We know the building was built in 1910, not 1410, but somehow it still pleases us. Even when I went home to Arkansas to visit family, we were constantly scouting filming locations which looked convincingly medieval. Our greatest find were the back rooms and the choir loft of a beautiful gothic revival church in our town.

While Gunther is obviously his own star attraction, he alternates screen time with a group of “reliquary ladies,” whose main trio, BridgetteAmanda and Susan are the queen bees of the side aisle. Even before he used a green screen filter to animate them with his eyes, lips, and a hint of mustache, he was drawn to their hairdos and individual personalities during repeat visits to the Met Cloisters.

“As reliquaries, they embody such a specific medieval sensibility,” he enthuses. “Each housed a small body part of a deceased saint, which people would make a pilgrimage to see. This combination of the sacred, macabre and beautiful includes all my favorite medieval elements.”

@greedypeasantWill the real St. Catherine’s lower jaw please stand up. ##medievaltiktok ##historytok ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage ##reliquary ##peasant ##arthistory♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

Get to know Tyler Gunther’s Greedy Peasant here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ethan Hawke Explains How to Give Yourself Permission to Be Creative

The most creative people, you’ll notice, throw themselves into what they do with absurd, even reckless abandon. They commit, no matter their doubts about their talents, education, finances, etc. They have to. They are generally fighting not only their own misgivings, but also those of friends, family, critics, financiers, and landlords. Artists who work to realize their own vision, rather than someone else’s, face a witheringly high probability of failure, or the kind of success that comes with few material rewards. One must be willing to take the odds, and to renounce, says Ethan Hawke in the short TED talk above, the need for validation or approval.

This is hard news for people pleasers and seekers after fame and reputation, but in order to overcome the inevitable social obstacles, artists must be willing, says Hawke, to play the fool. He takes as his example Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in May of 1968 and, rather than answer Buckley’s charge that his political positions were “naive,” pulled out a harmonium and proceeded to sing the Hare Krishna chant (“the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard,” Buckley remarked). Upon arriving home to New York, says Hawke, Ginsberg was met by people who were aghast at what he’d done, feeling that he made himself a clown for middle America.

Ginsberg was unbothered. He was willing to be “America’s holy fool,” as Vivian Gornick called him, if it meant interrupting the constant stream of advertising and propaganda and making Americans stop to wonder “who is this stupid poet?”

Who is this person so willing to chant at William F. Buckley for “the preservation of the universe, instead of its destruction”? What might he have to say to my secret wishes? This is what artists do, says Hawke, take risks to express emotions, by whatever means are at hand. It is the essence of Ginsberg’s view of creativity, to let go of judgment, as he once told a writing student:

Judge it later. You’ll have plenty of time to judge it. You have all your life to judge it and revise it! You don’t have to judge it on the spot there. What rises, respect it. Respect what rises….

Judge your own work later, if you must, but whatever you do, Hawke advises above, don’t stake your worth on the judgments of others. The creative life requires committing instead to the value of human creativity for its own sake, with a childlike intensity that doesn’t apologize for itself or ask permission to come to the surface.

Related Content: 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sci-Fi “Portal” Connects Citizens of Lublin & Vilnius, Allowing Passersby Separated by 376 Miles to Interact in Real Time

Can we ever transcend our tendency to divide up the world into us and them? The history of Europe, which political theorist Kenneth Minogue once called “plausibly summed up as preparing for war, waging war, or recovering from war,” offers few consoling answers. But perhaps it isn’t for history, much less for theory or politics, to dictate the future prospects for the unity of mankind. Art and technology offer another set of views on the matter, and it’s art and technology that come together in Portal, a recently launched project that has connected Vilnius, Lithuania and Lublin, Poland with twin installations. More than just a sculptural statement, each city’s portal offers a real-time, round-the-clock view of the other.

“In both Vilnius and Lublin,” writes My Modern Met’s Sara Barnes, “the portals are within the urban landscape; they are next to a train station and in the city central square, respectively. This allows for plenty of engagement, on either end, with the people of a city 376 miles apart. And, in a larger sense, the portals help to humanize citizens from another place.”

Images released of the interaction between passerby and their local portal show, among other actions, waving, camera phone-shooting, synchronized jumping, and just plain staring. Though more than one comparison has been made to the Stargate, the image also comes to mind of the apes around the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, reacting as best they can to a previously unimagined presence in their everyday environment.

Ironically, the basic technology employed by the Portal project is nothing new. At this point we’ve all looked into our phone and computer screens and seen a view from perhaps much farther than 376 miles away, and been seen from that distance as well. But the coronavirus-induced worldwide expansion of teleconferencing has, for many, made the underlying mechanics seem somewhat less than miraculous. Conceived years before travel restrictions rendered next to impossible the actual visiting of human beings elsewhere on the continent, let alone on the other side of the world, Portal has set up its first installations at a time when they’ve come to feel like something the world needs. “Residents in Reykjavik, Iceland, and London, England can expect a portal in their city in the future,” notes Barnes — and if those two can feel truly connected with Europe, there may be hope for the oneness of the human race yet.

via Colossal/MyModernMet

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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.

How Egyptian Papyrus Is Made: Watch Artisans Keep a 5,000-Year-Old Art Alive

In 2013, French Egyptologist Pierre Tallet discovered in an excavation site near the Red Sea “entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still relatively intact, written in hieroglyphics as well as hieratic, the cursive script the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication,” Alexander Stille writes at Smithsonian. The scrolls contained the “Diary of Merer,” the journals of an official who led a transportation crew, and who observed the building of the largest of the pyramids. It has been called “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.”

The discovery of the diary entries and other papyri at the site “provide a never-before-seen snapshot of the ancients putting finishing touches on the Great Pyramid.” It is also significant since Tallet found “the oldest known papyri in the world” and has helped give researchers greater insight into how papyrus was used by ancient Egyptians for careful record-keeping — in both the language of priests and scribes and that of ordinary merchants — since around 3000 BC.

Papyrus was “produced exclusively in Egypt, where the papyrus plant grew” notes University of Michigan Libraries, but “papyrus (the writing material) was exported throughout the classical world, and it was the most popular writing material for the ancient Greeks and Romans,” becoming the most used platform for writing by the first century AD. That changed with the introduction of parchment and, later, paper; “the large plantations in Egypt which used to cultivate high-grade papyrus for manufacture disappeared,” as did the knowledge of papyrus-making for around 1000 years.

But papyrus (the paper) has come back, even if wild papyri plants are disappearing as Egypt’s climate changes. While scholars in the 20th century tried, unsuccessfully, to reconstruct papyrus-making using ancient sources like Pliny’s Natural History, Egyptian craftspeople in the 1970s reinvented the process using their own methods, as you can see in the Business Insider video above. “The industry thrived, selling papyrus art to tourists,” the video notes, but it has fallen on hard times as the plants go extinct and demand falls away.

Learn above how modern Egyptian papyrus-makers, scribes, and illustrators ply their trade — a fairly good indicator of how the ancients must have done it. There may be little demand for papyrus, or for parchment, for that matter, and maybe paper will finally go the way of these obsolete communications technologies before long. But as long as there are those who retain the knowledge of these arts, we’ll have an intimate physical connection to the writers, artists, and bureaucrats of empires past.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery: A New Site Presents 403 Paintings from The Joy of Painting Series

“We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents,” the late Bob Ross soothed fans painting along at home, while brushing an alarming amount of black onto one of his signature nature scenes.

His mellow on-camera demeanor and flowing, wet-on-wet oil painting style were perfectly calibrated to help tightly-wound viewers relax into a right-brained groove.

The creators of the Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery take a more left brained approach.

Having collected data on Ross’ evergreen series, The Joy of Painting, they analyzed it for frequency of color use over the show’s 403 episodes, as well as the number of colors applied to each canvas.

For those keeping score, after black and white, alizarin crimson was the color Ross favored most, and 1/4 of the paintings made on air boast 12 colors.

The data could be slightly skewed by the contributions of occasional guest artists such as Ross’ former instructor, John Thamm, who once counseled Ross to “paint bushes and trees and leave portrait painting to someone else.” Thamm availed himself of a single color — Van Dyke Brown — to demonstrate the wipe out technique. His contribution is one of the few human likenesses that got painted over the show’s 11-year public television run.

The Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery has several options for viewing the data.

Mouse over a grid of grey rectangles to see the 403 artworks presented in chronological order, along with titles and episode numbers.

(This has all the makings of a thumping good memory game, à la Concentration… flip all the rectangles, study them, then see if you can navigate back to all the cabins or meadows.)

A bar graph, similarly composed of rectangles, reveals the colors that went into each painting.

Another chart analyzes Ross’ use of color over time, as he moved away from Burnt Umber and eased up on Pfthalo Green.


Indian Red was accorded but a single use, in season 22’s first episode, “Autumn Images.” (“Let’s sparkle this up. We’re gonna have fall colors. Let’s get crazy.”)

For art lovers craving a more traditional gallery experience, site creator Connor Rothschild has installed a virtual bench facing a frame capable of displaying all the paintings in random or chronological order, with digital swatches representing the paints that went into them and YouTube links to the episodes that produced them.

And for those who’d rather gaze at data science, the code is available on GitHub.

Explore the Bob Ross Virtual Art Gallery here. Scroll down to take advantage of all the options.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety show honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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