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Portrait Of A Lady (2)

Posted by D. M. F. on December 14, 2007

• …Continued from Portrait of a Lady (1).

Myth: Mona Lisa’s smile was posed.

smile2.jpgThe smile becomes her. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote in 1550, Leonardo’s model for the Mona Lisa could not bring herself to smile as the painter wanted. It was agreed to put her in the right mood by hiring musicians and jesters to perform while she was being painted. Aided by Leonardo’s coaxing and happy banter, the technique succeeded in eliciting the beautiful expression that graces the now celebrated painting.

A spiced-up version of the story claims the smile had something to do with the only romance in Leonardo’s life. It is said that Leonardo as a young man fell in love with the real Mona Lisa and made her his mistress. At the time he was starting on her portrait, she was in the throes of an unhappy marriage and was so distressed that she couldn’t smile. During the project, however, their illicit romance blossomed and she repaid Leonardo’s affection with her famous expression. Of course, this version ignores the fact that, being gay, the only relationship Leonardo could have had with a lady was of the platonic kind.

Both tales are now considered myth largely because of the finding that Renaissance artists did not paint directly from live subjects. They first made a sketch, or cartoon, from which they developed the paintings later in their studios. It is believed Leonardo made his master sketch of the Mona Lisa in Florence before taking it to Milan c. 1504, and then transferred it to a panel in preparation for the painting. The costume, the veil, and the background landscape were later added to complete the picture. There may have been a ‘sitter’ for the sketch, but the absence of one for the painting seems obvious from the fact that Leonardo spent a leisurely seven years or more to develop the Mona Lisa, something he could or would not have done had he depended on a live model.

Leonardo’s sketch is noteworthy for showing an unsmiling Mona Lisa, a further indication that the nuanced expression was painted only later. The smile may not have been entirely a product of Leonardo’s imagination, but copied from other sources. Experts point out that this kind of furtive smile on paintings was not uncommon during Leonardo’s time, and was nothing unusual even for his lesser contemporaries. Quite likely, it was from the master Andrea del Verocchio, to whom Leonardo and many of his colleagues were apprenticed in the early days, that the technique was learned. It has been established at least that Leonardo did not originate Mona Lisa’s ‘sitting’ posture but lifted it from other images of the seated Madonna, which were wide spread at the time.

That Mona Lisa’s smile was not posed is vehemently disputed by others, who note ‘the indisputable fact that her smile has exercised no less powerful a fascination on the artist than on all who have looked at it for the last four hundred years. From that date the captivating smile reappears in all his pictures and in those of his pupils. As Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is a portrait, we cannot assume that he added on his own account such an expressive feature to her face—a feature that she did not herself possess. The conclusion seems hardly to be avoided that he found this smile in his model and fell so strongly under its spell that from then on he bestowed it on the free creations of his phantasy’.

Myth: The most masterfully rendered part of the Mona Lisa is her smile.

The lady shows her hand. Most lay people hands.jpgregard the beguiling smile on the Mona Lisa as a singular stroke that only someone like da Vinci could have fashioned. To them, it’s the “most perfect” part of the painting hands down (no pun intended).

However, experts believe the real mark of perfection in the Mona Lisa is not her smile, nor even her face, but the right hand she lays across her waist and on her left hand. It is opined that not one of Leonardo’s imitators, past and present, has been able to approximate the soft and exquisite quality of that quietly positioned appendage.

We are advised nonetheless not to confuse the sense of perfection with which Leonardo imbued certain parts of his masterpiece—e.g., the hand, the gaze, and the smile—with his sense of the beautiful. The Mona Lisa as a whole is arguably Leonardo’s ‘most perfect’ work, yet his most beautiful painting of a woman’s face is that of the angel in the Madonna of the Rocks.

Myth: An imperfection on Mona Lisa’s face is her lack of eyebrows.

brow.jpgWanted: one very sharp eyebrow pencil. Mona Lisa’s face is criticized for being marred by an imperfection, caused by Leonardo’s alleged failure to paint eyebrows on his subject. Fortunately, art historians assure us that Mona Lisa was painted as she would have appeared in those days—with no eyebrows. Renaissance fashion in Florence called for ladies to shave them off, as they were considered unsightly. Some sources claim that, for modern viewers, the missing eyebrows add to the slightly semi-abstract quality of the face.

On the other hand, it is claimed Mona Lisa’s missing eyebrows may not have been deliberate on Leonardo’s part. In October 2007, Pascal Cotte, a French engineer and inventor, claims he discovered with a high-definition camera that Leonardo da Vinci originally did paint eyebrows and eyelashes. Blown 24 times by an ultra-high resolution, Mona Lisa’s face revealed a single brushstroke of a single hair above the left brow. Cotte says this suggests ‘Leonardo painted the requisite eyebrows, as he had on his other portraits of women, but they were eroded by time or have been inadvertently erased by a poor attempt to clean the painting’. Incidentally, there is historical support for Cotte’s finding in Vasari’s writing, in which he praises Leonardo’s beautiful sitter for her elegant eyelashes and realistically painted eyebrows. Ironically, because Vasari’s claim conflicts with the apparent lack of a detail in Leonardo’s painting, the writer has been accused of ‘fabricating his description of the Mona Lisa, which apparently he had not seen in person, or of confusing it with another painting’.

The presence of eyebrows is not the only detail in the Mona Lisa that has been uncovered through scientific scanning. A reflectography made in 2006 has revealed that Mona Lisa’s hair is actually attached at the back of the head to a bonnet or pinned back into a chignon and covered with a veil bordered with a sombre rolled hem. Until then, all the layman could perceive was her hair hanging loosely down on her shoulders, a style that, in Leonardo’s time, was common with unmarried young women or prostitutes. This would account for the belief of some that Mona Lisa, far from being the reputable wife of a nobleman or merchant, was a courtesan or, at the least, an unmarried professional model.

Myth: The Mona Lisa has eyes that will follow you everywhere.

Making eyes at no one. Expect a guideeyes.jpg at the Louvre to say that Mona Lisa’s mouth and hand are not the only points of interest in the painting. Watch out for her eyes as well, because they have a knack of following you as you move around the room. Her gaze seems to be fixed on the observer wherever he is, as if to welcome him to some silent communication. The trick, however, is not unique to that painting, nor is it limited to the works of the masters. Any portrait that rests on a flat surface and has only two dimensions will give the same result. The eyes of a subject in such a portrait will give the illusion that they are looking at you from every angle, because they are just so many points fixed on a plane and will be precisely the same points seen at any angle they are viewed from. If the eyes are pictured or drawn as looking directly at you when you are in front, they will be seen looking at you when you move to either side; and if the eyes are represented as looking in some other direction the observer cannot place himself in a position so they will appear to look at him.

The same experience may be obtained from viewing motion pictures. The audience at the extreme left side of the theater sees exactly the same scenes, and the same positions of the characters, as are seen by those on the extreme right side. In real life, it is the third dimension—depth—that discloses new lines and hides others when the viewer shifts locations, thereby offering a new perspective.

• To be continued…

• All non-textual images are from Google Images.


One Response to “Portrait Of A Lady (2)”

  1. el papou said


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