Is 'The Mona Lisa' Overrated?
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
The Mona Lisa is undeniably the world’s most famous piece of art. Over the centuries, the painting has risen to cult status, so famous that it has achieved socialite status in the art world, famous for being famous. Naturally, the enigmatic piece has attracted visitors from all over the world, eager to catch a glimpse of the renowned portrait, with around 10 million visitors annually. Many however, are underwhelmed and disappointed when confronted with the reality of the rather small 77 by 53 cm oil painting.
Leonardo Da Vinci dedicated years of his life to the painting and injected it with the knowledge and wisdom he accumulated over his decades of interdisciplinary study. His mastery and pioneering of the sfumato technique — the method of oil painting that creates shadow and depth without the use of definite lines by allowing the eye to naturally create borders throughout the fluid tonal differences — is on full display.
The woman’s realistic proportions are a result of Leonardo’s unrivalled understanding of human anatomy and the inner workings of the delicate muscles and bone structure underneath the skin. He obtained this skill by spending hours in the local morgue, peeling the skin off of cadavers and obsessing over the formations of facial expressions.
Expert examinations have also revealed the admirable diligence of Leonardo, applying between 20-40 layers of oil paint and glaze on the Mona Lisa giving the portrait a foggy, romantic quality, the extremely thin layers of glaze also helped in increasing realism as it mimicked the translucency of skin against sunlight.
The focus of the painting is undoubtedly her mysterious smile. Leonardo realised that light didn't hit the eye at a singular point but was spread out across the retina. He understood that when glancing at something directly, the image is clearer, and when things are seen peripherally, they are contorted and fuzzy. With this knowledge, he purposely created slight downturned shadows at the corners of her mouth, so when one focuses on any part of the painting other than her mouth, the Mona Lisa appears to be grinning, almost smiling. However as the viewer notices and seeks out the enchanting smile, it fades away, revealing a kind of flat expression. This effect is also seen in photos, in pictures of poor quality, the smile is present, while in pictures of high quality, it is not. It is evident that Leonardo had human psychology in mind while creating the Mona Lisa.
The raw excellence and impact of the Mona Lisa are clear. However, some argue that, by itself, it is not enough to make the Mona Lisa the star that it is today.
The painting was installed at the Louvre at the beginning of the 1800s after being hung in Napoleon's bedroom. The Mona Lisa was showered with an admirable amount of attention as soon as it was put up, Leonardo Da Vinci’s reputation and celebrity status as an unreachable genius helped it rise above other paintings. But it was a humble fame, commonly known as a lesser icon compared to Leonardo’s other work ‘The Last Supper’. It wasn't until Walter Pater, an English art critic, published a book on prominent Renaissance art which featured a poetic and near over-passionate essay about the Mona Lisa, that the painting began its first grand claim to fame. His iconic essay describing the portrait was quoted in the media for years after its release by the likes of Oscar Wilde. This helped launch the Mona Lisa as a work shrouded in mystery. The Louvre capitalised on the excitement around the painting and started promoting it more. Soon rumours and conversations emerged about her captivating smile, unknown identity, and even location (there was a conspiracy theory that the real Mona Lisa had been taken to America and the one in the Louvre was a fake).
But all of this stands trivial in comparison to the global media sensation that was the theft of the Mona Lisa. When a Louvre staff member Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, the painting received the best publicity it could have asked for. During the two years that the portrait was missing, people flocked to the museum to see the empty wall that the painting left behind, accusations were thrown around, and the Louvre's director of paintings stepped down. The situation exacerbated the mystery surrounding the Mona Lisa, conspiracy theories that the painting had never been stolen were born, media headlines spoke of nothing else, and Pablo Picasso was arrested as a suspect. The global chaos transformed the Mona Lisa from simply recognizable to an irreplaceable personality of its own.
To suggest that the Mona Lisa is so well known now because of desirable circumstances ignores the genius and inherent perfection of the piece. To say that the Mona Lisa’s current fame is solely owed to its distinct quality ignores the historical contexts it's been placed in. Ultimately, the answer is clear: the Mona Lisa is not and will never be overrated.