Monthly Archives: February 2023

What’s So Special about the Mona Lisa?

What’s so special about the Mona Lisa–a portrait of a woman who lived in Florence in the early 1500s? Lisa Gherardini wasn’t famous; she was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant of Florence. Francesco was a friend of Leonardo’s father, but not famous either. And the portrait isn’t large—only about 30 inches by 21 inches.

  • So why, in 1963, did millions of Americans at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. line up to get a 20 second view of this portrait?

    President and Mrs.John F. Kennedy and VP Lyndon Johnson at the National Gallery, Wash. D.C., public domain

  • Why did millions more view her in Tokyo and Moscow in 1974.
  • Why do most of the millions who visit the Louvre in Paris each year mostly just want to see the Mona Lisa?
  • Why is she valued at over $700 million?
  • Why have songs, like Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa been written about her?
  • Why can you find her image on everything from t-shirts to umbrellas?

Let’s look at some of the reasons Mona Lisa become a super star

Some of it is because of the Artist

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born near Vinci, just west of Florence. Contemporaries said he was handsome, charming, and a talented singer. He loved animals, mountain climbing, and art.

At 15 his father apprenticed him to the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio. There he learned painting, sculpture, and mechanical skills. Apprentices eventually began painting parts of their master’s works, and the angel closest to the viewer in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, was painted by Leonardo when he was still in his 20s. Compared to Verrocchio’s figures, Leonardo’s angel is far superior in color and realism.

Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio, 1472-1475, Uffizi Gallery, public domain

Leonardo was interested in everything from nature and anatomy to flying. In Milan, where he worked a number of years for the duke, he’s listed as the duke’s painter and engineer. As such he designed sets for court festivals, as well as working on architectural, military, and engineering projects.

While in Milan Leonardo painted The Last Supper for the dining hall of a monastery. But he was always experimenting with materials, and the paint of The Last Supper, began flaking off while the artist was still alive.

Despite his great talent Leonardo found it hard to settle and finish works. Though there are many notebooks with 1000s of drawing,

Study of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci, public domain

we have fewer than 20 works completed by him. But the masterful paintings, the drawings of inventive ideas, and accounts of his curiosity and brilliance in many fields, have all led to his being an icon of the multi-talented genius.

When Leonardo was an old man, France’s King Francis I invited him to live and paint at the French court. Leonardo died in France, which helped lead to the monarchy owning the Mona Lisa. Since the French Revolution, she has been owned by the French Republic and has her very own wall in the Louvre.

Some of it is because of the painting

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci 1503, The Louvre, public domain

Here’s are 11 special things about the painting:

  1. It’s one of the first easel paintings, meant to be framed and hung on a wall.
  2. It uses the new oil paints, (developed by northern European artists) whose long drying time allows artists to work longer and make changes.
  3. Mona Lisa’s face, hands and body are made up of many layers of thin, almost transparent paint (scientists have found 30 layers on her face). So instead of hard outlines, Leonardo used his knowledge of anatomy; used  lights and darks (called chiaroscuro) to create depth; and softly blended colors (called sfumato) to make her one of the most realistic portraits painted at that time.
  4. Mona Lisa’s pose is relaxed. Instead of the usual profile portrait, she sits in a chair and is turned toward the viewer. This became the norm for later portraits. Because she’s looking right at the artist, her eyes appear to follow the viewer.
  5. Leonardo used a pyramid or triangular composition to focus our attention on Mona Lisa’s face.
  6. Leonardo was one of the first to put a realistic landscape behind the sitter, using one point perspective that has all the receding lines end in a vanishing point behind the sitter’s eyes. This also helps focus our attention on Mona Lisa’s face.
  7. Leonardo used aerial perspective, showing distant objects as blue and blurry. (another innovation from northern European artists).
  8. There’s still some mystery about who the sitter is. Most experts agree that she is Lisa Gherardini, but a few hold out for others, including Leonardo’s mother.
  9. Of course Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile intrigues viewers. Early accounts say that Leonardo hired musicians and jesters to entertain her while he did studies and painted.
  10. Then there’s also the theft. An Italian worker at the Louvre stole the Mona Lisa in 1911. He hid in a closet until the museum closed and walked out with the painting under his coat. He took the portrait to his apartment in Rome, and it wasn’t discovered there for 2 years. The their claimed it belonged in Italy.
  11. Then there’s its estimated worth. Some say billions, others just say priceless. Today the French have spent their money on preserving and protecting her. She is in a bullet-proof glass case that has a controlled humidity and temperature all its own.

Let’s Enjoy the Painting Together

1. With this portrait, it might be fun to talk about the sitter and what she’s thinking. Do children think she’s smiling?

2. Many good copies have been made of the Mona Lisa, some by his students—all believed to be made after Leonardo’s death. But around 2010, conservators at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain discovered that their copy of the Mona Lisa, done by one of Leonardo’s assistants, was done at the time Leonardo was actually working on the original. It shows some of the same changes Leonardo made. They cleaned their copy of layers of varnish and found bright colors on Mona Lisa’s clothing and in the background.

The original Mona Lisa has also become darkened over the years by layers of varnish. So it’s probable that the original was also much brighter.

So it might be fun to compare the original and the Prado copy to see similarities and differences and encourage children to wonder what the original may have looked like. Here they are together.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci 1503, The Louvre, public domain

La Gioconda, Prado Museum copy, public domain

Two Takeaways

Art Activity Suggestion Try drawing or taking photos of each other in the same pose as Mona Lisa and with that enigmatic smile.

A Little Inspiration from God’s Word

Students in one of my art classes are learning to draw their portrait. We start off with the ways all human faces are similar, and make some light marks to show where we’ll draw eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. But then we begin to look even more carefully at all the details that make each individual unique. We are each wonderfully made by our loving heavenly Father. Psalm 139:14.

Picture of Molly the Artsy Corgi

Molly has given her spot to a special visitor today, The Mona Lisa Duck!

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide, 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, You’ll also get a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit.

Visit Molly’s and my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.