MoDeRnA LiSa Picture

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This is an older design I made in 2006 or so,
Just a small parody of a Masterpiece...

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Shattered Images of Mona Lisa

An article by M. Gale

Influential 'Woman'

Leonardo's portrait of Mona Lisa, probably the most famous painting in the world has been interested by the public for more than 500 years. It has been reproduced and discussed by artists throughout the history. Even historians and scientists (like Sigmund Freud) tried to reveal the identity of the sitter and the time of the painting’s creation. Although the painting is not dated nor signed the author is known, but the time of its creation is a cause of many discussions. There are no final answers, but there are a lot of theories which are mostly based on writings of Vasari and his contemporaries:

Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Monna Lisa, his wife; and toiling it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is now in collection of King Francis of France, at Fontainebleu. In this head, whoever wished to see how closely art could imitate nature was able to comprehend it with ease; for in it were counterfeited all the minuteness that with subtlety may be painted, seeing that the eyes had that luster and watery sheen which are always seen in life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints, as well as the lashes, which can not be represented without the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, though his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close, there more scanty, and curve according to pores of the skin, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender appeared to be alive. The mouth, with its parting, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colors but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse. And, indeed, it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every valiant craftsman, whoever he might be, tremble and lose heart. He made also of his device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he always employed, while he was painting her portrait, persons to play and sing, and jesters, who might make her remain merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give the portraits they paint. And in this work of Leonardo's there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold; and it was held to be something marvelous, since the reality was not more alive.
(Giorgo Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, G. Du C de Vere, translation by D. Ekserdian, New York, 1996)

Despite its undisputable historical value, Vasari's writing shouldn't be taken too seriously. This is clear when we take a look at his description of Mona Lisa. Vasari speaks about a beautiful sitter, praises her elegant eyelashes and realistically painted eyebrows. If we compare Mona Lisa with other sitters of that time, we can hardly say she is a beauty and Leonardo never painted her eyelashes or eyebrows, so we can assume that Vasari never saw the painting in person or that he was describing another painting.

The only reliable explanation of the 'mysterious Mona' lies within the painting itself. A painting created by a philosopher and an artist like Leonardo is not merely a beautiful image for decorating a 'Medicean saloon', but the painter's statement-his word. Leonardo literally encrypted his view of the world in this painting, its dimensions and image. He was a true master who besides his perfect technique enabled the viewer to read (watch) and understand the painting in layers. This is probably the reason why Mona Lisa and her direct flirting with the viewer remained 'mysterious' despite her popularity. Or to put it in other words - her 'mysterious smile' made her an icon.

Let us leave unsolved the riddle of the expression on Mona Lisa's face, and 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. This interpretation, which cannot be called far-fetched, is put forward, for example, by Konstantinowa (1907):

'During the long period in which the artist was occupied with the portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo, he had entered into the subtle details of the features on this lady's face with such sympathetic feeling that he transferred its traits - in particular the mysterious smile and the strange gaze - to all the faces that he painted or drew afterwards. The Gioconda's peculiar facial expression can even be perceived in the picture of John the Baptist in the Louvre; but above all it may be clearly recognized in the expression on Mary's face in the Madonna and Child with St. Anne'...
(Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood , Standard edition, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1990)

Mona Lisa has been reappearing in many disguises. Like Orlando, she has changed her sex and identity throughout reproductions, interpretations and reinterpretations by numerous artists. She was a man and a woman, a hooker and a saint, a mother and a mistress, an aristocrat and a peasant...

Leonardo's Mona Lisa can also be understood as an icon of the birth of the modern subject. A subject that is no longer one-dimensional but divided like Durer's angel(s) in Melencolia I. In Melencolia I and in Mona Lisa, the question of sex prevails over the identity of the sitter. It seems as if the artist is trying to tell us on a conscious or a subconscious level that the definition of sex does not lie in a statement that a man is a man and a woman a woman, but that each one of us carries within a mail and a female side.

Whether Mona Lisa is the painter's self portrait, which was discussed by Marcel Duchamp in his interpretation L.H.O.O.Q. will probably never be proved. But we can claim that Leonardo is a brilliant master, who tells us much more through this painting than we may think when we first look at it

If we cast everything else aside, the indisputable fact that Mona Lisa been the audience’s favorite for more than 500 years remains. She doesn’t loose on her value, on the contrary, she again and again arouses new associations and feelings. As the representative of the »classical«, she was the object of hatred for the modernists. An image that should be desacralized (torn, drawn on it, erased ...). Post-modernism has through Warhol put her beside Marilyn Monroe and Mao, the icons of the modern time - the modern saints. Today, she can be even found in the 'notorious art' of today - advertising.

Myth of LISA

According to mythology, Leonardo never finished the painting, but was constantly completing it which is visible on x-ray. Leonardo hasn't separated from it until his death, and it is supposed he took it with him to France where it was later sold to the French king Francis I. In 1550s, Vasari wrote that the painting was owned by the king, but in 1625 it is mentioned by Cassiano Del Pozzo as being one of the art pieces in The Royall French Collection in Fontainebleu.

The name La Joconda was first mentioned in 1525 in a heritage list of the painter Salai, Leonardo's student and heir, who left it to his sisters in Milan. The written record describes a portrait of a lady named La Joconda. If Salai and Vasari are describing the same painting, it is not known how it came from Milan, where it was taken by Salai when he returned to Italy after the death of his teacher, back to France.

There are theories that the painting was originally wider, so both of the columns on the left and on the right side were visible. If we take a look at the direct copy of the Mona Lisa, Raphael's Lady with a Unicorn and his Portrait of a Lady, the theory is confirmed, because the columns are clearly visible on both of them. It is rather unusual for Leonardo to base his composition in a way that the columns are cut off and only a part of the capitals are visible. It is also unusual that somebody would just cut the painting. I doubt that the painting was ever owned by somebody who would cut it just so it would fit a frame. If the painting was originally bigger, it is most probable that the 'vandal' was Leonardo himself. But we can only guess why and when that happened...

...Maybe in the following years (in France, where he was studying architecture?), Leonardo wanted to sign the painting through gematry and because of that he cut it into the desirable width? But because he was also a master of composition he didn't destroy it with the cutting, but it only gained on composition.

It is also possible that it is not named La Gioconda after the real person Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, but after an Italian word giocare (playing) which would present Mona Lisa as a 'merry lady' or an image playing with us. Until now, we have no indisputable evidence about how her name should be written: La Gioconda, La Giocconda, or La Joconda.

It is mentioned in Salai's will that the portrait of the Lady (Quadro de una dona aretata) was named La Joconda (altered to read la Honda). But in his work Vite de piu eccellenti architetti, scultori e pittori, published in 1550 in Florence, Vasari mentions Mona Lisa as a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo's wife Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo or abbreviated - Monna Lise del Giocondo (Monna is abbreviation for Madonna).

The identity of the sitter has been intensively discussed in the last century. The leading role has been besides Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo given to Costanza d'Avalos, Isabella d'Este, Isabela Gualandi and Guilliano de' Medici's mistress Pacifica Brandano. Sigmund Freud suspected the possibility that was Leonardo’s mother Caterina who possessed the mysterious smile:

...It may very well have been that Leonardo was fascinated by Mona Lisa's smile for the reason that it awoke something in him which had for long lain dormant in his mind - probably an old memory. This memory was of sufficient importance for him never to get free of it when it had once been aroused; he was continually forced to give it new expression...

Vasari mentions that 'heads of laughing women' formed the subject of Leonardo's first artistic endeavors.... 'In his youth he made some heads of laughing women out of clay, which were reproduced in plaster, and some children's heads which were as beautiful as if they had been modeled by the hand of a master ...'

Thus we learn that he began his artistic career by portraying two kinds of objects; and these cannot fail to remind us of the two kinds of sexual objects that we have inferred from the analysis of his vulture-phantasy. If the beautiful children's heads were reproductions of his own person as it was in his childhood, then the smiling women are nothing other than repetitions of his mother Caterina, and we begin to suspect the possibility that it was his mother who possessed the mysterious smile - the smile that he had lost and that fascinated him so much when he found it again in the Florentine lady.

(Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood , Standard edition, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1990)

The most intriguing theory is the one ascribing Mona Lisa Leonardo's features. It is interesting that Mona Lisa and Leonardo's Self portrait of an old painter are very similar if we ignore the age difference. What if Leonardo wanted to tease the viewer and show him that what he sees is for not what it really is (or that another person does not see the same thing as himself?), but that his phantasm lies in-between. A man or a woman - what is it that separates one from another - or maybe both?

In Searching of MONA

Leonardo da Vinci wrote some observations in connection to drawing of the figure (portrait) in his literary works:

Never make the head turn the same way as torso, nor the arm and leg move together on the same side. And if the face is turned to the right shoulder, make all the parts lower in the left than on the right; and when you turn the body with the breast outwards, if the head turns to the left side, make the parts on the right side higher than those on the left. (The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Oxford, 1883)

Mona Lisa was very different from other portraits made until that time, because she was painted sitting down and not as a bust or drawn in profile like Italian painters did. The portrait was larger and included more of the sitter’s body. This invention of Leonardo's influenced the development of a completely new way of portrait drawing which was followed by many until the 19th century.

The other important Leonardo's invention that gives the painting its mysterious character is the so-called sfumato technique. It means painting shadows with subtle shade transitions created with fingers that produced a special hazy effect on the painting.

The third important feature of Mona Lisa is the look of the sitter which is directed at the viewer. This 'trick' has already been used by the northern painters when painting portraits and self portraits. One of the fist portraitist, who painted a sitter looking directly at the viewer was Netherlandish painter Jan Van Eyck. In this way a completely different communication with the beholder is made, for he is directly addressed by the 'image'. The viewer is not merely an observer - as he is with other three-quarter and profile portraits of the northern-Renaissance art until Van Eyck - but becomes a part of the story.

Half-length cutting with stress on almost realistically painted face is typical for the northern portraits in the second quarter of the 15th century (from 1430s on, with Jan Van Eyck and Robert Campin). The cutting slowly becomes bigger and the hands of the sitter which have the same cutting as the face are included. A neutral, monochrome background which emphasizes the expression of the sitter is also very typical for these portraits. In the second half of the 15th century, the portrait opens into landscape in Italy and The Netherlands. Background is represented as a wallpaper or as a window view in front of which the sitter is placed.

Portraits of the Italian painters from the first half of the 15th century have less distinctive features and the person is usually painted from the profile. Such kind of portraits were initially used for the portrait medals, introduced by Pisanello in 1430s. His medal for Cecilia Gonzaga is the first known Renaissance medal to portray a woman. The profile portraits in the paintings were mostly abandoned in the late fifteenth century, although they were still used for special occasions (memorial portraits).

According to Campbel the long standing preference for this view was in part due not only to the long tradition of portraying donors in profile in sacred art and to the influence of classical medals and coins, but also perhaps to the possibility of creating an absolutely faithful likeness of the face by using its shadow profile.
(Italian paintings of the Fifteenth century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art – Systematic Catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003, pp. 592-593.)

The oldest three-quarter portrait is one of Rudolph IV of Hapsburg from the end of the 14th century (exhibited in the Erbischotliches Dozesanmuseum in Vienna). Since 1520s on, this type of portrait has been frequently used all over northern Europe. In 1450s in Rome, French painter Jean Fouquet depicted Pope Eugene IV as a three-quarter portrait. This painting was probably well known by Italian artists and wealthy patrons of arts.

The oldest Italian three-quarter portrait is Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan by Montegno from 1459. However the sitter appears as a bust and his hands are not included in the picture. The only exception is Portrait of a Man by Andrea della Castagno dated in the middle of the 15th century, which has all the characteristics of the northern three-quarter portrait looking at the viewer. The only difference is in the details of the brush which makes it incomparable to Netherlandish portraits by Campin, Van Eyck or van der Weyden.

Northern and southern painters knew each other through their original works (the Netherlandish painters in the Medicean collection), reproductions circling around and also through traveling (Durer often traveled to Italy, Jacopo de Barbari spent three years in Nuremberg etc.). The three-quarter portrait (look pointed into the beholder and often including arms) which had been through Robert Campin, Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden known in the northern European countries in the first half of the 15th century, appeared in Italy in 1470s with Sandro Botticelli's and Leonardo da Vinci's paintings.

Double (Self?) Portrait

Early Renaissance portraits of women were painted mostly for weddings. Most of them seem to date from the first years of marriage, after which civic laws dictated that women should dress more decently and refrain from wearing jewelry. Lippi's bridal portrait Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement (about 1435-1436) is the first preserved solo portrait in Florentine Renaissance. The painter’s treatment of the motif is highly unusual, since the husband Lorenzo Scolari is painted next to the bride Angiola Sapiti and as a reverse, a mirror image of her.

There are a lot of double portraits, husband and wife or a donator and Madonna, where two portraits contribute to the whole. Van Eyck's Man in a Turban dated in 1433 and Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (probably the painter's wife) dated in 1439 are especially interesting portraits, because they are not compatible in dimensions but are very similar. Some assume that Man in a Turban is the self portrait as it was described in the inventory of Lord Erandel's collection in 1655. The painting is also Van Eyck's first known portrait with the sitter looking at the beholder, which was later on used by Durer and Italian Renaissance painters.

Van Eyck probably signed himself through the image in the mirror in Betrothal of the Arnolfini. Johannes de Eych fuit hic / 1434, meaning Van Eyck was here is written above the mirror where two persons are painted. The man in a red turban could be the author’s self portrait. A figure in a red turban wearing a fur coat is painted in the background in the middle of the canvas in his Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. This type of signature where the author is painted as a commentator on the picture were often used by Renaissance artists. It was applied by Durer in numerous paintings, by Botticelli in Adoration of the Magi (Medici Adoration), by Raphael in School of Athens...

If Man in a Turban is really Van Eyck's self portrait, than it is the first independent self portrait known in the history of painting. Since then, painters often painted themselves in different periods of their lives, with various attributions in various disguises... often as an 'imitation' or a commentary of the most famous (self) portrait - Mona Lisa.


Modernist artists fought against everything old and so Mona Lisa as the representative of 'the Classic' became the object of hatred and despise. In 1919, at the peak of Dadaism, Dadaist artists tried to destroy a lot of 'old things' but most of all, they wanted to change the old patterns of thinking and Mona Lisa was the first victim.

In the year 1919 on the 400th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, Duchamp took a reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa added in pencil a moustache and gave it the title L.H.O.O.Q., which is pronounced in French: Elle a chaud au cul (She has a hot arse). He later explained the title himself:

…In reference to the Mona Lisa I also added a sentence or initials on the bottom of that reproduction - L.H.O.O.Q. A loose translation of them would be 'there is fire down below'.

(Artur Schwartz, The Complete work of Marcel Duchamp, Thames & Hudson, pp. 476-477)

Duchamp said that by drawing moustache and beard to Mona Lisa, she became a man:

…The curious thing about that moustache and goatee is that when you look at it the Mona Lisa becomes a man. It is not a woman disguised as a man, it is a real man, and that was my discovery without realizing it at that time.
(Artur Schwartz, The Complete work of Marcel Duchamp, Thames & Hudson, pp. 476-477)

Marchel Duchamp later wrote that the only reason he draw her moustache was to desacralize her. But maybe Duchamp didn't tell us everything and he revealed only the first layer of the image. Rhonda Roland Shearer, a New York sculptor thinks that L.H.O.O.Q. is Duchamp's self portrait. She thought that original was a lithography made by a superimposition of Mona Lisa and Duchamp's portrait.

Regarding to his statement that Mona Lisa is in fact a man, it is certainly interesting that he choose a woman as his alter ego. As an art gesture, he was photographed transformed in Rose Selavy ( pronounced in French as 'Rose is life' ). Photographs were taken by Man Ray in 1921. 'In contrast to an earlier Man Ray portrait of Duchamp dressed as a woman (La Belle Haleine: Eau Voilette (Beautiful Breath: Veil Water), 1921), the seductive gaze and fashionable attire of this Rrose Selavy project the image of a mysterious figure.' (Artur Schwartz)

We will probably never know for sure whether Duchamp revealed Leonardo's disguise and solved the mystery of Mona Lisa. It is certain that Mona Lisa has since the time of its creation been one of the most frequently interpreted works of art and could not be avoided by all famous artists.

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