The modern society is saturated with diverse illustrations of portraiture, which have evolved from the ancient time. Before the invention of photography, portraits, which represent power, wealth, beauty, and other values of the sitter, were painted, drawn, or sculpted. Surprisingly, portraits were reserved for the wealthy and royal people who commissioned artists to capture their likeness. The church also commissioned artists to create religious portraits to adorn cathedrals. Although all historical eras including the classical, medieval, and renaissance have had unique influences on portraiture, the Renaissance Art has had the most impact. Known as the golden age of literature, music, and art, the period inspired creativity for hundreds of years to follow, with iconic works by profound artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael Sanzio, and Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa is one of Leonardo’s portraits that have stood the test of time. The masterpiece illustrates how art evolved from the medieval age to the renaissance, and how its skill influenced art in the following centuries including the modern society.
Figure 1. Mona Lisa
(Source: Italian Renaissance.org.)
Insured for $100 million in 1962, Lenardo’s Mona Lisa is perhaps the most treasured masterpiece of renaissance art. Considering inflation, the piece could be valued at close to or slightly above $1 billion in Louvre, Paris (Joost-Gaugier 148). Leonardo produced the portrait in Florence between 1500 and 1508. Mona Lisa is believed to be commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo’s wife, Lisa. “Mona” is a short form of “Madonna”, which means lady in Italian, thus the title Mona Lisa. However, the idea that the portrait was for Francesco’s wife was later disputed, probably due to the sitter’s identification (ItalianRenaissance.org). According to Giorgio Vasari, a 16th century painter and biographer, the painting took more than four years, probably twenty years to complete due to the distinct cracking pattern (cariquelure) on the face and the hands (ItalianRenaissance.org). Mona Lisa depicts a veiled woman sited upright but sideways, with crossed hands resting on the arm of the chair. The subject is wearing a faint smile and her face and chest are slightly turned to the right side of the viewer. Leonardo’s painting was against the traditional representation of women in Italy. He made Mona Lisa to stare the viewer, an unconventional posture for women portraits in the Italian renaissance period. Her crossed arms placed on the armrest create a sense of the sitter’s content and assurance in her demeanor. The posture also creates a sense of distance between the subject and the viewer. Until the production of Mona Lisa, portraits of both sexeswere often cut off in the middle of the torso and the hands were elevated to allow visibility of the head, face, and shoulders (ItalianRenaissance.org). Mona Lisa illustrates not only the head and the upper torso down to her waist but also both arms are shown in the painting, indicating how innovatively illustrated the entire person, rather than the common sliver representation.
The renaissance period (14th-15th centuries), which came immediately after the medieval age, was characterized by the development of art, literature, and philosophy alongside political stability and the advancement of technology including the discovery and exploration of continents, the printing press, and a new astronomical system.This period tremendously inspired a renewed cultural interest in learning the values of ancient Rome and Greece (Joost-Gaugier 31). Religion began losing its expression in art as humanization rose to prominence. Artists sought to illustrate not only the mystery and beauty of the natural world but also the experience of the individual. Besides that, lack of investment opportunities in Italy, which forced the wealthy to instead fund the arts, is believed to have been the impetus of the Italian renaissance art (Joost-Baugier 32). Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an artist, an architect, an inventor, and a scientist. Today, he is best known for his outstanding skills in art, with his paintings Mona Lisa and The Last Supper being the most venerated. Leonardo, alongside Michelangelo and Raphael, dominated the 15th and the early 16th century art, a period known as High Renaissance.
Leonardo’s illustration of the woman’s body reveals the advancement in the level of naturalism in Italian art. The artist impressively utilized the sfumato technique to highlight the shadows on the subject’s face (Joost-Gaugier 90). Sfumato is an Italian word that means “vanish” or “evaporate”. Leonardo skillfully created imperceptible transitions between light and shadows and shades of colors, enabling him to seamlessly blend everything. His subtle brush strokes manifest his unique mastery of art. Mona Lisa’s skin appears soft and smooth, making the painting realistic. Her veil, hair, and skin, are illustrated using thin veneers of transparent color, creating a glow on the skin (Joost-Gaugier 153). Besides the naturalism, Mona Lisa features a background, which is a vast landscape. On the left side over the subject’s shoulder, there is a road that leads to the rocky horizon. On the right side of the portrait, the talented Leonardo included a bridge with a road leading to the sea far into the space. This background creates a stark contrast: the picture in front is a touchable woman but the space behind her, engulfed in misty haze, leads to an unknown space. This realism of the painting resulted from Leonardo’s experience in science through which he developed a math formula for determining size in space and used aerial perspectives to establish depth illusions for objects in the background (Bramly 50). This work has inspired and impressed many painters, musicians, and writers. For instance, Vasari wrote, “The mouth, with its opening, 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” (ItalianRenaissance.org). Mona Lisa is perceived as a work of genius and icon of pop culture in the contemporary society.
The Mona Lisa painting and other renaissance portraits greatly differed from those in the previous medieval period. Medieval artists paid less attention to detail and the human body because religion was the driving force behind art, thus, most represented images were those of churches or religious symbols that were crudely illustrated. For instance, in the painting in the Notary of Perugia Writing a Document, there is no depth and every picture bears the same face: the writing on the parchment does not resemble the details featured on pictures (ItalianRenaissance.org). On the other hand, renaissance portraits like Christ the Redeemer by Titian give more details although not in depth. Shadowing is visible in the picture, as well as the behavior of the fabric. Titian also included a background in his painting, which clearly separates it from the foreground. However, medieval and renaissance art had some similarities including color combinations. Most portraits featured lead white, yellow ochre, ivory black, malachite, and azurite.
Although there are differences between renaissance and contemporary art, the basic ideas of modern art are based on renaissance art.In the 18th and 19thcenturies, the attitudes about humanity changed (Joost-Gaugier 209). This Age of Reason and the social upheavals engendered by the Industrial Revolution introduced portraiture into the homes of the middle class. Individuals could easily purchase canvas and oil paint from stores and create portraits of their interest. Several French painters emerged in the post renaissance period of art and became experimental, adopting the skill of impressionism, the accurate and objective illustration of visual reality using light and color (Joost-Gaugier 187). Post-impressionists like Pablo Picasso pushed their attention further to line, color, form, and psychology since the inner psyche of the portrait was significant in the portrait. Portraiture expanded with the additional art materials including new forms of printing and computer-based media. These enabled new and improved works in aluminum panting, silk screen prints, collage form, and computer prints, giving birth to pop-art portraiture. Despite the advancement, basic art concepts featured in Mona Lisa including depth, symmetry, realism, perceptions, and background are present in contemporary art.
Mona Lisa is a manifestation that renaissance portraiture varied with medieval portraiture and that the ideas in the renaissance influenced the art of portraits in the contemporary era. The portrait, unlike others in the same era, provided a broader view of the body: the head and the upper torso down to the waist, with both hands visibly put on the armrest. A revival in the interest in classical learning of antiquity ignited a new form of portraiture, which paid attention to details and natural beauty. Mona Lisa features characteristics like depth, background, symmetry, linear perspective, and realism. These elements are featured in the contemporary portraiture. However, portraits in the medieval period were crude and paid little or no attention to the above concepts of art.
Bramly, Serge. Mona Lisa: Art Memoir Series. Thames and Hudson. 1996. Print.
ItalianRenaissance.org. “Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa”. ItalianRenaissance.org. 2015. Retrieved fromhttp://www.italianrenaissance.org/a-closer-look-leonardo-da-vincis-mona-lisa/. 11 June 2019.
Joost-Gaugier, Christiane, L. Italian Renaissance Art. West Sussex, Uk: Wiley-Blackwell. 2013.Print.