The art of the Renaissance was influenced by both ancient Greek and Roman culture as well as the humanism movement. The subjects of works of art were no longer limited to royal and religious figures, nor were they over idealized portrayals. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa exemplifies this trend. Working with the new medium of oil and his mastery of light, contrast, and sfumato, da Vinci created the most famous painting in the world; a work where subject and background compliment each other to form a perfect union. One of the aspects that make the Mona Lisa such a masterpiece is da Vinci’s use of oil as a medium.
As the movie The Mystery of Jon van Eyck explains, the use of oil as a medium was not widely used for painting until van Eyck refined it “by adding transparent colors in several thin glazes upon a white ground, creating a wholly new translucence as if lit from within. ” Da Vinci, like other painters of the Renaissance, used van Eyck’s oil painting technique to bring lifelike qualities to their works. According to Time-Life writer Robert Wallace, using oil opened up a new world of creative possibility for da Vanci.
Oil could create nuances of effect that the widely used egg tempera could not. Additionally, the sharp and obvious transitions between colors in tempera could be rendered obsolete using oil(29). Da Vinci’s mastery of the new oil medium is apparent in Mona Lisa. Evidence of this lies in the claim by Leonardo da Vinci scholar Marani Pietro that Mona Lisa is “the sum of Leonardo’s extraordinary abilities”(183). Da Vinci created Mona Lisa on poplar wood using a series of thin, semi-transparent, overlapping glazes. The thin glazes allow the underlying base of dark gesso to show through.
Da Vinci blends the light and dark shades of his painting seamlessly; there are no harsh lines or edges and each feature melts into the next. This technique, sfumato, perfected by da Vinci, coupled with the dark undertones of the base and the multiple layers of glazes, creates the illusion of three-dimensional features and “makes us see blood flowing beneath the subject’s painted skin and lips”(198). Another factor that that distinguishes Mona Lisa is its composition. Da Vinci strikes a delicate balance between his subject and the background surrounding her.
As Loren Partridge, a Professor of Art History at University of California, explains, da Vinci’s positioning of his subject broke away from long established norms regarding portraiture. Unlike the rigid portrait subjects of the past, da Vinci’s subject is relaxed and at ease. Sitting in a chair, she is in a natural pose, her hands crossed at her waist. Instead of the traditional side profile portrait, da Vinci positions his subject slightly turned away from the picture plane. She looks beyond the confines of the painting, her eyes locked with those of the viewer.
Da Vinci again deviates from conventional full length portraiture and opts instead for three-quarters length, bringing her closer the the edges of painting (121). This closeness creates a sense of intimacy, as if the subject is whispering secrets to the viewer. Adding to the secretive nature is the subject’s expression. From her eyes to her widely debated smile, there is a wholly ambiguous aura to her face. By using his knowledge of natural light and contrasting dark and light shades, da Vinci draws the viewer’s attention to that cryptic face.
In doing so, da Vinci managed to turn simple human expression into a mystery. While she radiates an overall ethereal quality, it seems that da Vinci did not over idealize his subject. However, she appears to inhabit a realm somewhere between reality and perfection where, as Partridge observes, she is “a transcendent supernatural woman. ” The role of the landscape da Vinci created is more than simple backdrop. Partridge explains the importance of the relationship between the background and his subject. Each feature has a role in drawing subtle attention to the smiling Mona Lisa.
Mountain tops summit at her forehead, a winding road on the viewer’s left draws attention to the turn of the subject’s right shoulder away from the viewer. The meandering river on the viewer’s right highlights the turn of the left shoulder towards the viewer. Furthermore, the artist “heightened Mona Lisa’s physical presence by placing her in a realistic environment” Here again, da Vinci’s sfumato technique comes into play. No harsh lines separate the subject from her background; they blend into each other as if one (121).
The oneness of Mona Lisa and her background can be attributed to da Vinci’s own views regarding man and nature. Wallace states that da Vinci thought of man and nature as a whole. He believed that one could not be separated from the other. In an article in The Art Bulletin, Webster Smith points out the connections da Vinci drew between man and nature. Da Vinci believed that as a man has a circulatory system that delivers blood throughout the body, the earth delivers water across its body in the same way.
He would later state that: “we can say that the earth has a spirit of growth and that its flesh be the soil, its bones be the arrangements and connection of the rocks of which the mountains are composed; its cartilages are the tufa, its blood the veins of water, the lake of blood that lies around the heart is the ocean sea, and the increase and decrease of blood in the pulses, is represented in the earth by the flow and ebb of the ocean sea “(qtd. by Webster 187). Partridge believes that da Vinci’s belief in the direct connection of the human body to nature is apparent in Mona Lisa.
He states that she “personifies, in short, the endless cyclical changes of nature, ranging from generation to decay, from decay to regeneration”(122). Leonardo da Vinci’s keen observations and understanding of the natural world and many talents combined to create the world’s most famous painting. By taking oil paint and laying it in skillfully connected and interwoven layers of contrasting shades of light and dark, he created a subject who seems to breath with the life he gave her.
In a famous essay regarding Mona Lisa Walter Pater said: “Like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her, and traffiked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and as St. Anne, the mother of Mary” These lines, written in 1869, are as true today as they were then and perfectly convey the power and timelessness of Mona Lisa.
Works Cited Marani, Pietro C. Leonardo da Vinci The Complete Paintings. New York: Henry N. Abrams. 2000. Print. Mystery of Jan van Eyck, The. Prod. Films for the Humanities & Sciences. 2009. DVD. Partridge, Loren. Art of Renaissance Florence 1400-1600. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. Print. Smith, Webster. “Observations on the Mona Lisa Landscape. ” The Art Bulletin 67. 2 (June 1985): 183-199. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. Wallace, Robert. The World of Leonardo, 1452-1519. New York: Time Incorporated, 1966. Print.