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?
- 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.
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,
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
Here’s are 11 special things about the painting:
- It’s one of the first easel paintings, meant to be framed and hung on a wall.
- It uses the new oil paints, (developed by northern European artists) whose long drying time allows artists to work longer and make changes.
- 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.
- 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.
- Leonardo used a pyramid or triangular composition to focus our attention on Mona Lisa’s face.
- 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.
- Leonardo used aerial perspective, showing distant objects as blue and blurry. (another innovation from northern European artists).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
I have seen the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre. I was surprised at how SMALL it was. Even in your photo of Pres. Kennedy, it looks larger than it is when you view it in Paris. At that time, It just had a plexiglass panel in front ofit – not the complete temperature-controlled frame. I’m glad I saw it, but… not as empressed as with the Last Supper in Milan.
Thank you for this history and information. It’s always fun to see how we can introduce art to kids in a way they will enjoy.
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Hi Jackie. Yes it does look small at the Louvre, and now it also has a large wooden railing that keeps people at a distance. When we visited, we got there early and went to see the Mona Lisa first thing, so there were a number of people, but not overwhelming. There were very few people in the many other parts of the Louvre that we visited, so I can believe that many go there mostly to see her. It’s too bad museums have to do so much to protect their artworks. Thank you so much for stopping by!
Aaah, I so enjoyed this Kathy! I always take away so much from your posts and the fun activities you suggest. I hadn’t ever really noticed the background and the vanishing point, or the softness of the features and light. And that Rubber Ducky is just fabulous!
Thank you, Angela! I’m so pleased that you enjoy my blog posts! Did you know that we got that duck and other fun ones from a website in Britain. They have a duck for everything! My first duck was a British bobby duck that I bought while on a long layover at Heathrow. Blessings to you, my friend!
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That doesn’t surprise me – we love Rubber Ducks over here! I’ve seen a few, such as the Union Jack, and the British Bobby, but not the Mona Lisa one before. It’s fun!
Well that’s interesting and explains why it’s a British company! This is their website. Justducks.co.uk
they have a duck for every place, occupation,stage in life, holiday, and more! It is fun!
Kathy, I learned more in your post than I’ve read about the Mona Lisa. I saw her at the Louvre in 2005, and although I’d read about the painting’s size, I was still stunned by it. Her history is “bigger than life.” I love your suggestion to let children compare the two paintings and then as they draw portraits, notice how God made us uniquely. How blessed your students are!
Oh, thank you, Jeannie! Yes, her small size is a surprise to most. This post grew out of some questions high school art students used to ask about why she’s so famous. Most of them start out rather unimpressed. They don’t realize how innovative she was at the time. Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I hope you and your family are doing well!
So many interesting facts, both about the painting and the painter. Always enjoy learning Ms. Kathy. Thank you ma’am.
And I always appreciate your taking the time to read and comment on my posts! Thank you so much, J.D. I know you traveled in Italy. Did you ever get to France?
I have been to France Ms. Kathy, but it was on business trips and I never had the time to visit the Lourve or the other many wonderful sights there. In Italy, my wife and I were blessed to spend a few days in Firenze (Florence) and I loved touring the Uffizi and other sights around town. The marble sculptures AMAZED me with their detail.
It’s too bad that business trips often leave little time for something fun. But I will say, as much as I loved France and its art and history, I fell in love with Italy and would go back if I could!! So much history and amazing art and friendly people.
Thank you for this fascinating background info on the Mona Lisa. I’ve always wondered what made it so special, but never took the time to research it. I just accepted that it was what it was! And I did get to see it hanging on its own wall when I visited the Louvre in 2018!
Hi Candyce. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! I saw her in 2018 also! The Louvre is so huge, you could be there for days, right? Was there anything else there that you really liked?
You could take days to see it all. We followed a guide that suggested the major works to see as we only had a day. The Royal gems display is the first thing that comes to mind after Mona.
The history and renovation of the museum also interested us. We brought home a pictorial history about it.
A tour was a good idea! It sounds like it was interesting. I would have enjoyed learning more of its history as a palace and what happened during the Revolution. so many religious sites, such as Mont St. Michel were turned into prisons for that time! I’m glad most of those places have been restored to some extent.
Your posts are always filled with wonderful information, but this one really pulled me in. I suppose because the Mona Lisa is so famous, as well as DaVinci. He was so talented and brilliant in so many ways. I’m not surprised to learn that he left so many unfinished works. I knew a brilliant man who was just the same. Thank you, Kathy.
Oh, thank you, Katherine! this post grew out of the need to explain to some art students what was so special about her! Leonardo was certainly a very special man, and when you read all that he did, it’s amazing he ever did any art works! But I’m so glad he did! And I’m so glad to hear from you, my friend!
Oh, Ms. Kathy, I loved reading this post. The history intrigues me and I enjoyed viewing the lightened version of the Mona Lisa. It brought details to light that I’d not noticed before. Plus, I find it encouraging just knowing DaVinci had so many imcomplete works. His attention span must’ve been like mine! 🙂
Hi Sally, it is so amazing to see a good copy made by one of his students all cleaned up and so very colorful. I have to wonder why they haven’t cleaned the original but maybe she’s just too valuable to risk it. You’re right, the fact that he didn’t finish some things can maybe help us all feel a little better about those unfinished projects we all have! After all, if a genius could not finish…
Kathy, I’ve always been fascinated by the Mona Lisa. I loved learning so much, both about the painter and about the sitter. Thank you for the wonderful history lesson!
You’re so welcome, Jeanne! I love all those detail, too!And I think it helps bring the artist and his or her work more alive for us, don’t you?