The Mona Lisa – what’s the big deal?

December 27, 2009

 Mona Lisa - Leonardo Da Vinci

A desultory conversation with my cousin, led us to the subject of art. He said, “What’s the big deal in the Mona Lisa? Why would anyone pay tons of money for it?” Well, I did manage to give him a prosaic answer, which didn’t convince me either.

I must admit that the actual painting, at first look, is quite unimpressive; not because of the quality of the work but because it does not stand up to its perceived image of magnificence. The “Oh my God!” effect is missing. At first glance, it looks like all the other paintings in the Louvre, all wonderfully painted by great masters.

So what’s the reason behind Mona Lisa’s fame? What makes it so special compared to the other famous works? Why were 1.6 million people thronging to see it when it was displayed in New York? Why was every viewer only provided 10 seconds to view it in Tokyo?

Here’s my endeavor to explain it in simple terms… the reasons:

The technique

Leonardo Da Vinci used a number of unique and innovative techniques to paint this picture. The painting redefined the rules of contemporary art at the time and the techniques used by him became an integral part of the art school curriculum. Da Vinci used techniques which were unknown at the time (16th century). He invented the “sfumato” technique which translated means ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’. It was the norm at the time for artists to proceed from an outline, whereas Da Vinci did not have an outline but used different tones / shades of paint to create an illusion of  light and shadow. Starting with dark undertones he built the illusion of three-dimensional features through layers and layers of thin semi-transparent glazes. He used darker shades to highlight features and borders of the subject. The use of this technique caught the interest of the art circle in Paris and was hailed as an innovation in painting.

There were many other unique characteristics in the Mona Lisa that intrigued the art community and the viewers like the landscapes (mountains and rivers) in the background. A potrait was usually drawn with the background being the open sky, a montone background or a room. The background was also queer due to the dimensions of the mountains.

However, the above uniqueness of the painting can only be recognized by people in the know or by people who have studied the painting; this still doesn’t explain why everybody in the world wants to see it.

The smile

One of the commonly cited reasons for her fame is the ‘Mona Lisa’s Smile’. Da Vinci exploited human optimcal illusion to create a unique smile through perspective and by using shadow work. Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa in such a way that the eyes are the center of the viewer’s attention and the mouth is the periphery. His sfumato technique ensured that both the eyes and the mouth were prominent features. When the viewer looks at the eyes, the mouth falls under the viewer’s peripheral vision and therefore the features of the mouth are not clear, this along with a little shading at the cheek bones make the mouth look like a smile. But once the viewer focuses on the mouth (smile), the smile slowly disappers, as it was not meant to be a smile. That’s the magic of Leonardo’s skill and that’s what made the Mona Lisa unique compared to other grand paintings. There are various interpretations of the smile, some say it is a happy smile, some find it deceptive while others perceive it as a sad smile. The mysterious smile has also given rise to various speculations on who the subject was. The facial expression gives the painting an enigmatic look, leaving the viewer to wonder what the model was thinking, who she actually was and why does she seems happy to some and appear sad to others.

The glamour

Da Vinci’s was said to be an interesting character himself, being an inventor, artist and scientist. In his hey days and under the patronage of Francois I he managed to create an aura of a celebrity around himself. His fame rubbed off on the Mona Lisa which was also favoured by Francois I his patron. One must know that, there are only 20 finished canvas paintings done by Da Vinci during his lifetime, increasing Mona Lisa’s rarity.

The fact that it was stolen in the early years of the 20th century added to its fame. Artists like Ducham, Dali and Warhol publicized the painting further through their different reproductions. The painting has been used as an object for mass reproduction, merchandising, lampooning and speculation, and was reproduced in 300 paintings and 2,000 advertisements.

The Provenance

Da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 and he worked on it for four years. The subject of the paintings is popularly believed to be the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. The painting was commissioned for their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. The subject is Lisa del Gioncondo. In those days, in Italy, Mona meant Madonna, this was how all women were addressed (like Mrs.) and therefore the name Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is also called La Jaconde. There are other controversial versions as to who the subject of the painting is.

The Mona Lisa was always displayed in a place of importance. It was publicly displayed in the Fontainebleau, Francois I favourite château in 1519. In 1800, the Mona Lisa was hung in Napolean’s bedroom and in 4 years it was moved to the Louvre, which is still its home.

Other controversies

There are rumours of hidden secrets and symbols within the painting.

Academicians have found evidence of various (hidden) layers of paintings within the Mona Lisa. Scholars are said to have, identified at least four different paintings as the Mona Lisa and several people as its subject.

Da Vinci is supposed to have painted Mona Lisa in his own likeness, as a female Da Vinci


The Mona Lisa is undoubtedly the most talked about painting. The above history of the painting explains most of it, but what keeps the painting in the lime light is the fact that Da Vinci’s life itself was full of controversies and mysteries which are still being revealed. The Mona Lisa too is being constantly studied by artists and academicians to discover the apparent mystery that shrouds the painting. Its reputation as a carrier of symbols, secrets and other unknown mysteries will keep the infamy of the Mona Lisa going for a long time.

Well I hope the above sheds some light on “what the big deal is about the Mona Lisa”

Sideline issues – Value of the painting

Before the 1962–3 tour, the painting was assessed, for insurance purposes, as valued at $100 million. As an expensive painting, it has only recently been surpassed, in terms of actual dollar price, by three other paintings: the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, which was sold for $135 million, the Woman III by Willem de Kooning sold for $138 million in November 2006, and No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock sold for a record $140 million on in November 2006. Although these figures are greater than the 1962 figure which the Mona Lisa was valued at, the comparison does not account for the change in prices due to inflation – $100 million in 1962 is approximately $700 million in 2009 when adjusted for inflation using the US Consumer Price Index.

Further reading on the Mona Lisa (reference sources for the article)

Mona Lisa impressions by famous artists

Mona Lisa by Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol



Appreciating abstract art

November 21, 2009

Composition VII, Kandinsky (1913) - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

On one of my regular gallery visits, I noticed a man staring at a painting and tilting his head from side to side to make sure he was seeing the painting the right way. He then looked at me, smirked, shrugged and moved on to the next piece, as if wishing me luck understanding the painting. 

I admit comprehending abstract art does pose some difficulties to the viewer in appreciating it. The main lament on abstracts is that there is no discernable subject and therefore fails to communicate with the viewer. But this does not mean that abstract art is meaningless doodle, it’s just that one has to move away from the conventional idea of a painting – an image of something or somebody; an imitation of the real world. Understanding the idea behind abstract artworks helps one appreciate a painting for what it actually is – colour, surface, shapes and emotions on canvas.

Everyone can learn to appreciate abstract art if one knows the general objective of abstract art. Let’s start with defining abstract art: Abstract paintings primarily emphasize lines, colours, forms and surfaces in relationship to one another. This means, abstract artists believe that one does not need a definite conventional subject to create art but the colours, lines, geometrical shapes are in themselves the subject.

The general opinion that, there is more to abstract art than meets the eye is true from the perspective of an artist. Every artist’s work is influenced by his immediate surroundings, his experiences and his emotions. The complexity for the artist comes from the fact that he needs to reflect this situation onto the canvas effectively so that the final artwork stirs emotions in the viewer.

On the other hand the viewer is not expected to understand the artist’s intentions. This is practically impossible, unless one talks to the artist (which by the way is true for all kinds of art). The viewer fundamentally needs to stop trying to figure out ‘What’ it is and concentrate on ‘How’ it makes you feel. It is however critical is to switch off the right brain (logic thinking) and let the mind wander; you will see the painting talking to you. It may take sometime but keep staring.

The first abstract art was created by the modern Russian artist, Kandinsky in 1910. The creation of abstract art was accidental. The story goes that Kandinsky returned to his studio one evening and in the twilight he saw his unfinished painting propped up on an easel. From the angle he was standing at, combined with the twilight; he saw an arrangement of bright colour patches, which he thought was extremely beautiful. This realization that colours can bring out emotions irrespective of content was the beginning of Abstract Art.

This was a radical turn of events in Art History. Till then colour was just a medium to portray a subject but with the invention of Abstract art, artists began to use ‘colour’ as the ‘subject’ itself. Theo van Doesburg said ‘his art has no significance other than itself’ and stated that “nothing is more real than a line, a colour, a surface.”

To sum up, do not try to find figurative objects or meanings in abstract art. There maybe none, as the subject is the ‘colourful paint, the crooked line or the triangular shape’ arranged aesthetically to provide viewing pleasure.

Here’s an example of Abstract Art:

RB Murari, 2009, Monsoon Canvas Gallery

The painting is nothing but the glorious and harmonious intermingling of yellow, green and red. The red, yellow and green are the protagonists on a stage of somber brown. The artist has also introduced a measure of rivalry among the colours, at certain parts of the painting the yellow is dominant and at others the red. The layers of paint also bring out the tussle between the colours. This is a good example of how “the colour” is the main and only subject of the painting.