Confession: I am not a big fan of the Mona Lisa. A friend asked me how I am choosing the artworks to blog about here, and a large part of the decision is how well I can articulate how a piece affects me. I like to have an initial reaction, something that I already find interesting, and then go research more about the work, the artist, the social context, the technique so that I can fill out my ideas and compare them to what the experts say. With DaVinci’s portrait, it seemed like People Who Know had said she was important before I ever had a chance to formulate a personal reaction. I mean, when I went to see her at the Louvre, she seemed a bit, uh, too popular. In a way, she couldn’t live up to all the hype.She is in a room, behind glass, behind barricades, behind a hoard of people flashing (or rather trying not to flash) their cameras at her. If you are in Paris, you are required to go see her. I have been twice. The first time I was a jet lagged senior in high school in wind pants and tennis shoes and baggy T shirt. I think all 12 of us on that charter bus guided trip were underwhelmed. The second time was during my junior year abroad. I had lower expectations, and didn’t even bother trying to get up close to see her when a friend and I headed to Paris for a long weekend. We cooed over the Caravaggio painting nearby, instead.
And it kinda makes me feel guilty that I didn’t fawn over Mona Lisa. I mean—she is the most famous painting in the world, and generally I like paintings, so I should like her too, right? Um, well, I don’t. I don’t actively dislike her, she just doesn’t “wow” me or speak to me the way lots of other art can.
To make up for my inability to find something profound and interesting to love about The Most Famous Painting In the World, I did a bit of research. I learned how portraits were posed differently prior to that time (in profile, not straight on) and how the painting technique called “sfumato” enhances the mystery of her appearance. There are some legitimate art history innovations with DaVinci’s work that make this portrait special, but much of her allure these days is her story. Instead of being given to the family that commissioned the painting, she was hung in the home of kings. In 1911 she was not the rock-star of the Louvre, but her theft that year and subsequent return two years later made her famous. People speculate on forgeries, duplicates, hidden symbolism, and conspiracies. It seems to me that Lisa’s fame is part art innovation with a heaping dose of publicity. My, my, look at the dirt in your pores, Ms. Lisa! And the wrinkles! I have a feeling your skin ages you more than your years. Hey Louvre, clean her up already, will ya? Honestly I find cracks interesting, but here I feel like they detract from my ability to see the painting. That is just me, though. Some have speculated that we might not find her so intriguing if she were cleaned, that we might value her more because of her old, yellowed cracks.
What about that infamous smile? I used to hate to show my teeth in smiles—I had braces twice and wasn’t fond of a mouthful of orthodontics in pictures. So I would have this odd closed lip half smile. Kinda like our lady Lisa. Maybe her teeth were bad. Or perhaps it is a tired smile—“I am sitting here posing, and it is taking FOREVER for you to paint my picture, Mr. Da Vinci!” Have you ever seen outtakes of photo sessions where kids start to look bored and then eventually run away? Yeah, maybe what we are seeing is the grown-up version of that. Maybe that “enigmatic expression” people talk about is psychological, but…I don’t have much of an emotional reaction to it.Maybe you are enticed by her expression, and feel intrigued by her; I would really love to hear what you imagine is going on in her head. I would also like to give you permission to not like the Mona Lisa, too. You are allowed to have your very own personal opinion of art, whether it is “important” art in a highly acclaimed museum or a mass produced poster in the break room at work or a scribble made by your child.
What do you think of the most famous painting in the world? Have you ever felt guilty for not loving a “masterpiece”?
This video at SmartHistory helped me better appreciate DaVinci’s portrait, but the art historians don’t sound super enamored with the Mona Lisa, either.
My Modern Met has a collection of fun unconventional portraits on their blog, including a Mona Lisa made from cups of coffee.