The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in 1503 is probably the most famous work of art in the world.  Why has the Mona Lisa become so famous?  Let's examine what it is that makes this rather small (30.31 x 20.87 in, 77 x 53 cm) oil painting on a wood panel painted at the turn of the 16th century so compelling to viewers worldwide.  

Mona Lisa, (La Gioconda), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06, The Louvre
The Mona Lisa is the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo.  Mona was a contraction of "Madonna" meaning "my lady", a title of respect.  In the Louvre where this is located the painting is called La Gioconda, this is both a feminine version of her husbands last name and a word in Italian that tranlates into "the joyful one" referring to her slight smile.

Leonardo was born and raised in Tuscany and studied art under Andrea del Verrochio in Florence.  After leaving his master's workshop he acquired fame as an artist in Florence, where he lived until he was 30 years old.  Then he was sent by the influential Medici family to live in Milan where he worked for both the Medici and Duke Lodovico Sforza.  The Mona Lisa was painted during the three year period when Leonardo returned to Florence.  It was commissioned by another Florentine, Francesco del Giocondo who was a wealthy silk merchant. Leonardo returned to Milan in 1506 and brought the portrait with him.

Leonardo had painted only a handful of private portraits in his career, some earlier works are below. From left we see the Portrait of Ginevra de'Benci (1474-78), a portrait known as the Lady with an Ermine (c-1490, thought to be the mistress of Lodovico Sforza the Duke of Milan, Cecilia Gallerani) and the unknown sitter called La belle Ferronière (1490-96).

All three are beautifully painted with oil on a wood panel and show the sitter in a 3/4 view.  I have arranged them in the order they were painted chronologically and the Mona Lisa would have been painted nearly 10 years after La belle Ferronière and 25 years after the de'Benci portrait.  The later two have no background which highlights the face of the sitter, the earlier work had the landscape background made popular in Florentine painting of the mid to late 15th century.

While all are extraordinarily lovely portraits, the Mona Lisa still remains one of the most famous works of art in the world which leads me back to my original question- Why has the Mona Lisa become so famous?
One reason this is so well known is that this portrait was painted using techniques ahead of its time.  When compared with portraits by other artists painted around this time the Mona Lisa is startlingly realistic.  Let's look at some examples of Italian Renaissance portrait painting from the late 15th century.

Giovanna Tornabuoni, Ghirlandaio, 1489-90, tempera on panel, 

We can compare the Mona Lisa to earlier egg tempera portraits such as the one by the well known Florentine painter Ghirlandaio (above).  The style he used in his portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni was quite popular during the 1400's, the profile was influenced by Ancient Roman coins which were commonly collected in the Renaissance.  The Mona Lisa was painted less then 15 years later, Leonardo uses the more realistic 3/4 view of his sitter.  In comparison to the lovely portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, the Mona Lisa is a much more convincingly naturalistic representation.

Portrait of a Lady, Ghirlandaio, 1489-90, tempera and oil on panel, Clark Art Institute

But Leondardo was not the first to use the 3/4 view, here is another portrait by Ghirlandaio which is similar to the Mona Lisa in composition.  The sitter also sits on a balcony and has a panoramic landscape behind her.  Yet this work too does not match the realism of the Mona Lisa.  One reason is that Leonardo's use of oil paint gives his work a richness of color and sense of depth that cannot be achieved with egg tempera.  

 Portrait of Francesco delle Opere, Perugino, 1494, Uffizi Gallery (Florence)

The artist Perugino was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, it is thought that they both studied under the same master, Andrea del Verrochio.  In the above portait Perugino also uses a similar composition, his sitter seems to rest his hands on the frame of the painting and again we see a sweeping (if not Italian) landscape in the far background.  Perugino worked in oil paints and he has captured many lifelike details faithfully.

But why does the Mona Lisa still look more lifelike?  Leonardo pioneered several painting techniques, one was known as "chiaroscuro" which used light and dark to model form rather than using flatter outlines such as painters like Ghirlandaio and Perugino.  Leonardo's other innovative technique of "sfumato" meaning smoke created a painting with many thin glazes or layers of oil paint rather than the bright and flat washes of egg tempera.  Leonardo also famously dissected corpses to do a thorough study of human anatomy, which allowed him to fully understand the facial structure of his model and the underlying muscle and skeletal structures of all the figures he drew and painted.

When we line them up side by side these comparisons can help the modern viewer see the Mona Lisa with fresh eyes and fully appreciate the work for the innovative type of portrait that it was.  At this time portraiture was rather common and many painters contributed a variety of techniques.

But in fact there have been many innovative painting styles and techniques through the ages and Leonardo himself painted a number of other well executed portraits.  This leads back to my examination of the fame behind this now iconic work.

Leonardo da Vinci was considered to be a genius in his own time and he still is.  He did work as a painter, but he also worked on a wide variety of other things and so didn't create very many paintings, only around 25 exist today.  Therefore his unique painting methods combined with the scarcity of his work means that each work is considered extremely valuable and that sentiment has been true of Leonardo for a long time.

That idea ties into yet another reason why the Mona Lisa is so famous, the scandal that was created when it was stolen from the Louvre over 100 years ago.

The "Cult of the Mona Lisa" so to speak may have begun in 1911 the year it was stolen from the museum.  King François I of France invaded the Duchy of Milan while Leonardo was employed in the Royal Court of Milan under Sforza rule.  The French king was quite impressed with Leonardo and brought him back to France with him.  As Leonardo had never given his portrait of the Mona Lisa to his patron, he brought it and other works with him to France where he lived out the remainder of his life.  Due to this the Louvre museum in Paris has an impressive number of his works in its collection, at least six paintings as well as dozens of drawings.

That very fact angered a man named Vincenzo Peruggia who was working at the Louvre, he was Italian and felt that the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy.  As an employee he was able to take it from the frame and sneak it out of the building. A day went by before workers realized it was in fact stolen and when word got out about the theft of the Mona Lisa the public was shocked. It was said that more people came to the Louvre to stare at the empty frame in the month it went missing than came to see the painting in the entire previous year.

It wasn't recovered for another two years and when it was finally returned the artwork was considered even more priceless and beloved than before.  Today it hangs behind protective glass and is surrounded by a constant crowd of viewers.  

It is one of the most copied and parodied works of art.  Marcel Duchamp made a version in 1919 with a mustache and beard and Andy Warhol made a silkscreen in 1963 of multiple images entitled Thirty are Better than One.

Whether it is seen as a paragon of Renaissance beauty, an innovative work by a genius or an iconic painting, the Mona Lisa continues to intrigue and inspire viewers more than 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci painted her.


Exhibit: The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece

"Man is the measure of all things."  So said the Ancient Greek scholar Protagoras in the mid-5th century BC and his statement rings true in the current exhibit at the Portland Art Museum: The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece.

There are over 100 objects from Ancient Greece, all from the British Museum in London.  There is a focus on Classical (510-323 BC) and Hellenistic (323-146 BC) Greek art, but the objects are from a wide variety of eras and locations.  Included was a Cycladic figure from c.-2,500 BC as well as Etruscan and Roman objects.  The emphasis is on the human figure, shown in a wide variety of forms, including life-size marble sculpture, painted amphoras, small bronze figurines and plaster casts of famous marble sculptures such as The Spear Bearer by Polykleitos.  The exhibit is broken up into several sections such as: The Male Body Beautiful, Aphrodite and the Female Body, The Divine Body, Athletes, Birth, Marriage and Death, Sex and Desire and The Human Face. 

Townley Discobolus, original by Myron 450-440BC
Roman copy from 2nd cen AD

Much of what we know of Greek sculpture today is due to the surviving Ancient Roman copies of originals.  Ancient Greek sculptors made many of their most beautiful sculptures from bronze, however they were later melted down to reuse the valuable metal.  Many of the works in The Body Beautiful were later Roman copies of Greek art from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

One of the things I found to be really interesting was in reading about the famous Discobolus from the British Museum.  The bronze original from 450-440 BC was created by a Greek sculptor named Myron and has never been found.  Today there are several Roman copies that did survive, the one in the British Museum is known as the "Townley Discobolus" and the head is actually from a different Roman sculpture.  The two were both found broken and it was incorrectly assumed that they went together.  Also the head was attached facing the wrong way, it should in fact be looking at the arm that is about to throw the discus.  The Townley sculpture was excavated from the Emperor Hadrian's villa in Tivoli outside of Rome in the late 18th century.  The Discobolus is rather unique as the figure is in motion instead of standing still.

Victorious Athlete, Roman Copy c.-1st cen. A.D 
from the original 430 B.C, British Museum

Another figure also from the Classical period is known as the Victorious Athlete (pictured above).  His static standing form is more typical and his ideal form and beauty are hallmarks of this time in art.  This is a good example of Ancient Greek art from the Classical Period as it has an emphasis on perfect beauty and harmony seen through the body of a muscular young athlete. 

As the wall text says in the exhibit-
"The realism of 5th century BC Athenian art tended to generalize human types.  Artists set out to represent the values of the city (polis) and its ruling class of soldier citizens, rather than to portray individuals."

Bust of Aphrodite, Roman copy of original from 360 BC

The same was true of idealized gods and goddesses.  There were many variations on the perfect beauty of the Venus (Aphrodite in Greek) type, but they all had in common a type of portrait or figure showing the perfect beauty of the eternally young Venus, nearly always shown nude.  The 4th century BC sculptor Praxiteles in particular was renowned for his skill in creating the ideal female body through his many Aphrodite figures.

 Part of a sculpture of two boys fighting over a game of knucklebones, Roman, 1st cen BC

The above sculptural fragment is of a decidedly different style, that of Hellenism.  When Alexander the Great expanded the Greek empire into Asia Minor there was a cross cultural shift in styles and upon his death in 323 BC the period known as Hellenism began.  Rather than the "perfect beauty and harmony" found in the earlier Classical Style, Hellenistic art focuses on the individual and becomes more naturalistic.  While Classical Greek art was "realistic" in the sense that it appeared convincingly real, naturalistic refers to observing life in nature rather than the ideal.  Examples include bodies that are aging, grotesque, scrawny or obese rather than the perfect ideal youthful athletes, heroes and gods of the previous century.

Another characteristic of Hellenism is that it often took a humorous or dramatic turn such as the fragment above of two boys fighting during a gambling game.  Still in this work the ever present theme of "the body" is on display with the surviving figure's interestingly contorted pose.

The Sphinx of Lanuvium, British Museum, 120-140 AD

The following text is taken from the Portland Art Museum's website-

October 6, 2012 – January 6, 2013

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece explores the human form through exquisite objects from the British Museum’s famed collection of Greek and Roman sculptures. This collection rarely travels due to its size and value.  London’s British Museum is one of the oldest and most celebrated museums in the world with a collection of more than seven million objects exploring human history and culture from its beginnings to the present.

Organized by the British Museum and curated by Director Brian Ferriso for its presentation in Portland. The exhibition is accompanied by a full color catalog.

This Exhibition has been made possible by the collaboration of the British Museum and
Portland Art Museum.

A Painting Within a Painting: Hidden Messages in Dutch Art

Due to the wealth and prosperity of the Netherlands in the 17th century, there were now hundreds of painters creating works for private homes.  Artists and art galleries flourished during what is now known as the Dutch Golden Age.  Genre themes, or scenes of everyday life, were very popular at that time.  When we look at these works today we see paintings with people engaged in a variety of routine activities.

However there is more than meets the eye in most Dutch genre paintings.  Often rather than portraying common activities, genre paintings contained moralizing messages or were allegories of virtue or vice.

Contemporary 17th century viewers would have recognized many levels of symbolism, including the meaning in the painting within a painting.  Let's look at some examples of Dutch genre paintings that have small works of art in the background to better understand their variety of meanings.

The Love Letter, Vermeer, 1669, Rijksmuseum

One common example are love letter paintings, they were a popular theme because due to foreign trade and the Eighty Years War many Dutch men were sent away from home.  This was a genre scene that has many incarnations, typically when we see a woman who is receiving or reading a letter we know it is meant to be a love letter.  What is the message inside? Clues are typically given to the viewer in the painting within a painting.  There are two paintings within the above work by Vermeer.  The top painting shows a man along a road which lets us know that the woman is receiving a letter from someone, likely a fiancé or husband, who is on a journey.

A ship at sea was a common metaphor for love and that is the subject in the botttom painting.  What is going on with the ship gives the viewer a clue as to what is in the letter.  Is the ship on a calm sea? Then all is well and the reader will be getting good news.  Is the ship on a stormy sea? This may mean the reader is receiving some troubling information.  In the Vermeer the ship is on a calm sea, but clouds are rolling in.

Gabriel Metsu created these two works to hang together as companion pieces.  In the first a young man is writing a letter and in the second a young woman is reading a letter.  The viewer is meant to understand he is writing a love letter to her, though their exact relationship to one another isn't known.

We can understand by his surroundings that he is traveling, there is a large globe that sits in the corner of the room behind the open window and an oriental carpet is being used as a tablecloth.  The painting on his wall is a pastoral landscape. 

In the other painting we understand with the inclusion of the little dog that the woman is being faithful, in the foreground there is a tiny thimble which lets the viewer know that she was so excited to get her letter she jumped up in the middle of her needlework.

As the woman reads her letter, her maid pulls back a curtain over a framed painting to reveal two ships on stormy seas.  Due to the fact that Metsu shows us that the man is fine and that he created these two works to be hung together, the rough seas would likely be a symbol for the turbulent nature of love, especially when spent apart from a loved one, rather than a symbol of bad news.

The Slippers, Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1654-62, (Louvre)

Another type of genre painting which commonly used a painting within a painting were those with a moralizing message.  We can see an example of this in the van Hoogstraten work known as The Slippers.  At first glance the viewer sees a quiet interior setting with two slippers in the foreground.  On closer examination the work is an allegory of lust and temptation.  The slippers are not a set, there is one man’s and one woman’s.  A broom in the foreground has been left to the side as if to suggest that the woman who was cleaning and a man are in the bedroom together.  The painting within the painting here, the Father Admonishing his Daughter by Netscher (a variation on a well known work by ter Borch) was actually a painting that takes place in a brothel. The contemporary viewer would have taken note of this and immediately understood the allegorical message.

The Doctor's Visit, Jan Steen, 1665
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam)

In the same vein of allegories of lust are the many versions of The Doctor's Visit, painter Jan Steen in particular created a number of these.  A doctor's visit genre painting typically shows a young woman being visited by the doctor (often shown as a quack) and contains clues that she isn't sick, but rather is pregnant.

In this particular painting everyone but the young woman seems to know this and to be laughing about it.  To give an added clue here the painting above contains two embracing lovers.  The paper on the floor states, "No medicine is of use, for it is lovesickness."

Other versions of messages within paintings contained religious themes. During this time the Netherlands was strongly Protestant and religious works were no longer being painted or hanging in churches.  However religious imagery can be found in many of the paintings within a painting, which is interesting in genre scenes as it would be very uncommon to find these within the average home.

In Vermeer's well known work Woman Holding a Balance, the woman in the painting is dressed in the finest clothing and is surrounded by a variety of expensive jewelry and pearls.  She holds up a small empty balance scale, perhaps to weigh some of her jewelry.  This genre scene takes on an entirely new meaning when the painting in the background is taken into consideration.  

Here we see the Last Judgment and the analogy can be made that Christ will be holding the ultimate balance, weighing the souls of the saved and the damned.  It is perhaps a reminder to the viewer that regardless of the riches you accumulate in life, it is important to take care to live a life of virtue and realize your immortal soul will ultimately have more weight than your possessions.

 The Sick Child, Gabriel Metsu, 1663, Rijksmuseum

In our final example we turn again to a Christian religious painting on the wall, this time it is a Crucifixion.  In Metsu's The Sick Child, a young mother holds her little child in her lap.  The child looks pale and unwell and slumps across the mother's legs, much like a modern version of the Pieta found in Italian Renaissance art.  Interesting to note too is the fact that the mother is dressed in a gray shirt, which would have been common, but has a blue skirt with a red undertunic.  At this time women would dress in simple colors in day to day activities, but the Virgin Mary is nearly always shown wearing a dress of royal blue (the color associated with her) with a red undertunic (red symbolizing the blood and Passion of Christ).

The fact that the mother is wearing these colors and that on the wall we have a picture of the Crucifixion of Christ lets the viewer know that Metsu is drawing a comparison between this mother and sick child and the Madonna and Christ.  But what message exactly is he sending the viewer?  He may be likening the sacrifices all mothers make to those of the Virgin Mary, or reassuring parents that she would know how it felt to be worried about your child.  Perhaps Metsu wants to remind viewers not to worry about things such as sick children since Christ has died to bring salvation to everyone.  The exact interpretation would likely have been more apparent to the contemporary viewer.

While the meanings of a painting within a painting vary, always make sure to take note of what the artist has chosen to embed in their paintings.  The subjects within these frames within frames always enhance the viewers understanding of a painting. 

The Unicorn Tapestries

Elaborate woven tapestries were a common art form during the period of late Medieval and the Renaissance.  Tapestries served the dual purpose of adding warmth to a room and providing beautiful decorations.  Biblical or historic themes were common and often tapestries would be created in a cycle of 4-10 works telling a story.  They were hand-stitched from threads of wool and silk, created in workshops throughout Europe.

The unicorn was seen as a symbol of Christ and was frequently shown in Medieval art.  There are several interesting examples of unicorn tapestries, this blog post will focus on one of the most famous unicorn tapestry cycles known as The Hunt of the Unicorn.

The Unicorn in Captivity (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

This seven tapestry cycle was likely created sometime between 1495-1505.  This cycle is displayed in the Cloisters Museum in New York, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated entirely to Medieval Art.  The original patron and tapestry workshop is not known, but the dates can be deduced based on clothing styles of the figures.  It was probably created in Belgium (known at the time as Flanders).  Brussels in particular was known for its high quality tapestry construction around the turn of the 16th century.  

In the late 17th century the cycle was owned by French nobility living in Paris.  After the French Revolution the tapestries were taken down and used by peasants to keep warm and were found lying in a barn 70 years after the revolution.  Unfortunately during the years when they were outside they were damaged, faded and in the case of the fifth tapestry in the cycle, torn badly.  They were recovered in the 1850's by descendants of the French family that once owned them and despite their damage they are still quite well preserved. The Rockefeller family purchased them in the early 20th century and then later donated them to the museum where they hang today.

#1: The Hunters Enter the Woods (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505
The cycle tells the story of a royal hunt of the unicorn and in these tapestries there are many symbolic ties between the unicorn and Christ.  The unicorn is seen in six of the seven tapestries but he is missing from the first one.  It is the start of the hunt with huntsman and hunting dogs out looking for the unicorn.  If you look carefully you will see the initials "A" and "E" hidden in each tapestry several times.  The "E" is backwards and one example can be seen in the tree between two hunters, others are found in the bottom corners. Notice the distinctive style of clothing worn by everyone in the tapestry.  Every part of the tapestry is filled and the forest floor contains dozens of types of plants and flowers.

#2: The Unicorn is Found(Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

In the next tapestry the Unicorn is discovered as he dips his horn into the stream to purify the water.  A wide variety of animals wait by the side of the stream to drink out of it afterwards.  The animals include: a panther, a stag, a lion, a rabbit and even a hyena.  Rather than representing animals found in a typical French forest, each animal had its own symbolism.

At the very moment he is putting his horn into the water the unicorn is discovered by the hunters who all point to him.  This lovely tapestry is rather faded and the blue sky was added later after the cycle was recovered.  During the time that this was created the sky would have been replaced by something else such as more trees.  As we can see in the other tapestries, all areas were filled in with decoration and not left a solid flat areas of color.

#3: The Unicorn is Attacked (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

The recurring initials have led historians to think these tapestries may have been commissioned for a marriage.  Note that in this tapestry the letters "F" and "R" have been added to this particular work, but they appear to have been added later and not part of the original tapestry.  The viewer can also see different coats of arms on the collars of the hunting dogs which is likely an allusion to the family or families represented by the initials.  The "R" added later may stand for the La Rochefoucaulds, the French noble family who owned these works for a time.

The composition in the 3rd tapestry is quite similar to the 2nd, the unicorn is in the center by the stream and surrounded by hunters, in the 2nd they all point to him and in the work above they all lunge at him with spears. As in the first two we can also note the use of vivid colors and dense foliage.

#4: The Unicorn Defends Itself (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

In the 4th tapestry the unicorn has been surrounded and is making an escape by giving a powerful kick, as he kicks outward his horn gouges one of the hunting dogs.  This two follows the compositional set up of the previous two works.  In the foreground a variety of animals continue to drink from the purified stream. 

There is also a #5: The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, today this is badly torn and only fragments remain.  This is unfortunate as we don't know how the unicorn came to be captured.  In one strip of the tapestry the unicorn is with two women (only the hand of one remains).  The woman who strokes the unicorn is thought to be a maiden (virgin) due to the fact that she is shown in an enclosed garden which was a popular symbol of virginity.  As he is subdued it appears that the other woman is signalling to the hunters.  However since only pieces of this work are still intact that isn't known for certain.

#6: The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle(Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

The killing of the unicorn is presented in a rather gruesome way.  If we are to follow the Christian symbolism of the unicorn in this tapestry cycle we can note the following: The unicorn is capable of purifying the water, the unicorn is tamed by a maiden (virgin) and killed violently.  However after he is dead, he is resurrected in the last tapestry.

#7: The Unicorn in Captivity (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

The subdued and resurrected unicorn sits within another small enclosure in the final tapestry in this series.  In addition to the Christian symbolism there are also symbols that could reflect that the "maiden" has in fact subdued a bachelor by marrying him, another reason that historians think this was commissioned for a wedding.

Flowers each had their own symbolic meaning and several in this would also tie into a matrimonial theme; for example the lily for faithfulness and the carnation for marriage.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art website says of this work:

"The Unicorn in Captivity may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over. The unicorn could escape if he wished but clearly his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from the bursting pomegranates above."*

*"Unicorn in Captivity, The [South Netherlandish] (37.80.6)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)