The Mona Lisa, a painting which has become famous worldwide, is an artwork par excellence created by Leonardo da Vinci. People have been gazing at this portrait, with a sense of bafflement for nearly 500 years. It portrays a real woman of flesh and blood. Her enigmatic smile has seduced millions of art lovers. This painting became famous because of the fact that it looks lively.
If anyone gets a glimpse of the picture, the first thing that strikes him is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and looks a little different, every time we come back to her. First, she is smiling. Then the smile fades. A moment later, it returns only to disappear again. Even in photographs of the picture, we experience this strange effect. Sometimes, she seems to mock at us, and then again, we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, but it's true. He is a great observer of nature and created this painting in such a way that he left something for the beholder to guess.
Many questions were raised by the observers of this painting like: what is with this lady's face? How did the great painter capture such a mysterious expression, and why haven't other artists copied it? Many tried to answer these questions, which gave birth to number of theories, but Leonardo, the great observer of nature, certainly knew how he achieved this effect, and by what means. Some people gave a scientific explanation of how the eye and brain deal with different levels of contrast and illumination. Others explained how the human visual system is designed. Recently, scientists attributed the weird behavior of this painting to visual noise.
Unraveling The Secret
In any painting, if the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, and if the form is left a little vague as though disappearing into a shadow, the impression of dryness and stiffness can be avoided. This is Leonardo's famous invention, which the Italians call sfumato - the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.
In the painting of Mona Lisa, he used the means of his "sfumato" with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that the expression of the picture rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now, it is precisely these parts that Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why, we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is really looking at us. Her expression always seems just to elude us. It is not only vagueness, of course, which produces this effect; there is much more behind it. Leonardo has done a very daring thing, which perhaps only a painter of his consummate mastery could risk. The people who had a close look at the picture notice that two sides do not quite match. This is most obvious in the fantastic dream landscape in the background. The horizon on the left side seems to lie much lower than the one on the right. Consequently, when we focus on the left side of the picture, the woman looks somehow taller or more erect than if we focus on the right side. And her face, too, seems to change with this change of position, because even here, the two sides do not quite match. One really admires the way in which he modeled the hand, or the sleeves with their minute folds. Leonardo could be as painstaking as any of his forerunners in the patient observation of nature.
Long ago, in the distant past, people had looked at portraits with awe, because they had thought that in preserving the likeness the artist could somehow preserve the soul of the person he portrayed. Now the great scientist, Leonardo, had made some of the dreams and fears of these first image-makers come true. He knew the spell, which would infuse life into the colors spread by his magic brush.