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Art / The Mona Lisa

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The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire...She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave...The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
Walter Pater

Without a question, the single most famous portrait painting of The Renaissance and in the Western world as a whole, a true icon of artistic excellence, and the image which represents aesthetic beauty, enigma, and mystery. It's believed to have been painted between 1503-1504 by Leonardo da Vinci, and he maybe worked on it on and off for a decade until 1517. The painting entered the personal collection of King Francis I of France and is famously housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Also known as La Gioconda and La Jocondenote , the painting's famous title was coined by art critic Giorgio Vasari (who first described the flowering of art and culture at the time of Giotto as rinascita). Vasari said that the painting was a portrait of "Mona Lisa", which is an Italian shortening of Madonna Lisa (My Lady Lisa/M'lady Lisa would be the correct English translation), and referred to the subject as Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo who was a silk merchant and longtime friend/business associate of Leonardo’s father. But for many years there wasn't any hard evidence to corroborate this. Then in 2005, a researcher found marginalia in an old book in the University of Heidelberg, written by one Agostino Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, yes that Amerigo). In it, Agostino wrote in Latin about:

"Apelles the painter. That is the way Leonardo da Vinci does it with all of his paintings, like, for example, with the countenance of Lisa del Giocondo and that of Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see how he is going to do it regarding the great council chamber, the thing which he has just come to terms about with the gonfaloniere. October 1503."

Hence, most academics now accept as a proven fact that the subject of this portrait is Lisa Gherardini (June 15, 1479 – July 15, 1542), who upon her marriage to Francesco del Giocondo became Lisa del Giocondo. But for centuries, "Common Knowledge" was that the subject was a mystery, enhancing the enigma of her smile.

The portrait has long fascinated art historians and theorists thanks to Leonardo's mastery of sfumato, which is an Italian word with no proper English equivalent, but one that refers to the airiness, the blurred quality, and fineness of objects, much like smoke which is visible despite being without colour and form in the air. It's been noted that if one looks at the portrait closely, it's very hard to locate the exact beginning of the smile, but on standing back, the effect is quite clear. Indeed the phrase "mona lisa smile" often refers to the unique nature of the smile; some observers are convinced that the subject is not actually smiling but gazing plainly, while others are certain that she is smiling happily. The size of the painting (77 cm × 53 cm) draws special attention to her expression, which gazes outwards to the observer, almost convincing people that the painting is actually seeing them. This is especially the case when one considers the background, which is generally quite flat and vague, with Lisa sitting against a balcony illuminated with a greenish light, her arms crossed and resting on the right arm-rest of her chair.


A detailed scientific explanation for the nature of the Mona Lisa's smile didn't exist until the year 2000, when neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone wrote that da Vinci created a unique optical illusion by exploiting the difference between human peripheral and central vision: we see a smile when looking at the mouth and cheekbones with our less detailed peripheral vision, but it stops looking like a smile when we use our central vision and look directly at it. Another da Vinci portrait, La Bella Principessa, also appears to change expressions depending on how you look at the portrait. Creating this effect would have required painting someone's smile by *not looking at it*, which may be one reason is why artists inspired by da Vinci's style weren't able to replicate it.

The Mona Lisa was an immediate hit and widely influential on the next generation of painters; the likes of Raphael Sanzio especially drew on it for his famous portraits (such as Baldassare Castiglione). Vasari, in his landmark book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, praised it for its realism, but that hasn't stopped legends and concepts cropping up around it. In the 19th Century, it became celebrated for being the painting, with much ink spilled on the subject, the art critic Walter Pater lionizing it, and many artists and critics offering weird theories and ideas about who Mona Lisa is. In the 20th Century, it was already considered overexposed by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, the Surrealists, and others. A landmark incident of art-theft brought new attention to the painting and further cemented its legend. It also has had the effect of making the painting completely inaccessible since its now sealed in a special glass container with heavy guards in the museum, thronged by gaggles of tourists.


  • Artistic License – Art: For the most famous painting ever, the Mona Lisa is more often than not presented incorrectly in fiction. The most common mistakes are making it larger than it is (the actual painting is only 30-by-21 inches) and it being painted on canvas when it was actually painted on wood.
  • The Caper: Infamously, in 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in broad daylight. The plan was simple and brazen: The thief dressed as a maintenance man, removed the painting for "cleaning," and simply walked out with it under his coat. It was recovered 28 months later, when he tried to fence it at an art gallery in Italy. Since then it has been protected under bulletproof safety glass.
  • Dated History: For a long time everyone believed that the Mona Lisa and its subject will forever be a Riddle for the Ages and Shrouded in Myth. The common traditional answer that it was the wife of a Florentine nobleman was dismissed for being "boring" until it was confirmed in 2005.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Contrary to modern depictions of the painting with the greenish sky, the brown clothing, and the ochre skin, the colors used to be brighter and more vibrant, with one critic even describing her skin as "rosy and tender".note  Centuries of varnish, cleaning, and exposure made it as it is today. True Art Is Ancient indeed.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Want to show someone is in an art museum? Put them in front of the Mona Lisa! This even occurs in cases where the subject is not in the Louvre, nor even in France.
  • Famous for Being Famous: It's the most famous painting in the world, and by extension its female subject is one of the most universally-recognized faces. Art historians generally agree that Mona Lisa is not the best painting, nor the most important. However its fame has become self-sustaining. The mythical status of its painter Leonardo da Vinci also adds to its mystique.
  • Mona Lisa Smile: Trope Namer, Trope Maker, Trope Codifier. The particularly deft way Leonardo created the effect of the smile, almost but not quite fully smiling, and which from another angle doesn't seem to be there, was one of the greatest mysteries in art history. The fame of the painting has also made it a popular object of spoof.
  • Mustache Vandalism: Marcel Duchamp codified this with his famous spoof of the painting, where he put a mustache on a postcard of her. Salvador Dalí also painted his own thin, upward mustache on a black and white copy of Mona Lisa, with a man's hands holding coins in place of her hands, calling it a "self portrait".
  • No Brows: How she is always depicted. She used to have brows, but centuries of cleaning have removed them. This may be a contributing factor to the aforementioned hard-to-read smile.
  • Proper Lady: The painting is the emblem of the proper lady, and the ability of a woman to moderate and hide her expressions in social situations. As noted by Walter Isaccson in his article for the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic:
    Walter Isaacson: "So the world’s most famous smile is inherently and fundamentally elusive, and therein lies Leonardo’s ultimate realization about human nature. His expertise was in depicting the outer manifestation of inner emotions, but here in the Mona Lisa he shows something more important: that we can never fully know another person’s true emotions. They always have a sfumato quality, a veil of mystery."
  • Shrouded in Myth: A lot of fiction revolves around theories on who sat for the Mona Lisa painting. Particular theories even argued that it was Leonardo himself in drag, because apparently some think Lady Lisa looks like a Dude. Of course, these were all retroactively debunked in 2005, when the Louvre revealed a letter confirming that the model was Florentine noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo.
  • Wolverine Publicity: Most art critics believe that the effect and aesthetic greatness of the painting is endangered by its constant overexposure. Almost anything to do with Leonardo features the Mona Lisa. For instance, the book cover of The Da Vinci Code and the posters of its film version features the painting even if it doesn't have anything to do with her (the so-called "da vinci" code revolves around Conspiracy Theory surrounding Leonardo's notebooks, scientific research and Dan Brown's fantasies).
    • Vox, in their Overrated series, expressed this trope when the painting was put into popularity after the art theft.

"I can tell you chaps one thing: it's not always easy to hold this smile."

Alternative Title(s): Mona Lisa