1500 – 1600
End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

Leonardo's "Mona Lisa"


Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-05, oil on panel 30-1/4 x 21 inches (Musée du Louvre)"
A conversation between Salman Khan and Beth Harris about the Mona Lisa and its changing meaning


Portraits were once rare
We live in a culture that is so saturated with images, it may be difficult to imagine a time when only the wealthiest people had their likeness captured. The weathy merchents of Renaissance Florence could commission a portrait, but even they would likely only have a single portrait painted during their lifetime. A portrait was about more than likeness, it spoke to status and position. In addition, portraits generally took a long time to paint, and the subject would commonly have to sit for hours or days, while the artist captured their likeness.

Leonardo, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-6 (Louvre)

The most recognized painting in the world
The Mona Lisa was originally this type of portrait, but over time its meaning has shifted and it has become an icon of the Renaissance, the most recognized painting in the world. The Mona Lisa is a likely a portrait of the wife of a Florentine merchant, and so her gaze would have been meant for her husband. For some reason however, the portrait was never delivered to its patron, and Leonardo kept it with him when he went to work for Francis I, the King of France. 

The Mona Lisa's mysterious smile has inspired many writers, singers, and painters. Here's a passage about the Mona Lisa, written by the Victorian-era writer Walter Pater:

We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least. The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! 

Piero della Francesca, Portrait of Battista Sforza (Uffizi)Early Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca's Portrait of Battista Sforza (c. 1465-66) is typical of portraits during the Early Renaissance (before Leonardo); figures were often painted in strict profile, and cut off at the bust. Often the figure was posed in front of a birds-eye view of a landscape.

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer, ca. 1485-1494 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)A new formula
With Leonardo's portrait, the face is nearly frontal, the shoulders are turned three-quarters toward the viewer, and the hands are included in the image. Leonardo uses his characteristic sfumato—a smokey haziness, to soften outlines and create an atmospheric effect around the figure. When a figure is in profile, we have no real sense of who she is, and there is no sense of engagement. With the face turned toward us, however, we get a sense of the personality of the sitter.

Northern Renaissance artists such as Hans Memling (see the Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer, c. 1485-1494, right) had already created portraits of figures in positions similar to the Mona Lisa. Memling had even located them in believable spaces. Leonardo combined these Northern innovations with Italian painting's understanding of the three dimensionality of the body and the perspectival treatment of the surrounding space.

A Recent Discovery
An important copy of the Mona Lisa was recently discovered in the collection of the Prado in Madrid. The background had been painted over, but when the painting was cleaned, scientific analysis revealed that the copy was likely painted by another artist who sat beside Leonardo and copied his work, brush-stroke by brush-stroke. The copy gives us an idea of what the Mona Lisa might look like if layers of yellowed varnish were removed. 

Leonardo's Mona Lisa, and copy in the collection of the Prado

Your Comments (7)

Previous Comments

Dan Gerhart wrote on Thursday, April 19, 2012

I appreciate your discussion of how Leonardo opened the picture plane through dimensional form, i.e. a pyramid, rather than simple shapes, i.e. a triangle (discussed more fully in Adoration of the Magi). Is it also appropriate, in considering Cezanne's multi-perspective views, to trace that back to Leonardo's dual perspective in ML's landscape?

irshadkagzi wrote on Thursday, January 03, 2013

Leonardo de Vinci is a real great Artist for ever, no one can be stand beside him. He is genious. Khan Acedemy is doining excellent work, I have learn more.

Matt Lewis wrote on Saturday, January 05, 2013

This is a wonderful website, and I find myself enjoying so much of the enthusiasm that the art historians show, particularly Dr. Zucker and Dr. Harris. Frankly, I'm a little confused by the cynisism I hear in literally every single comment made by Mr. Khan. In the context of this wonderous journey of a site, Mr. Khan comes off as a buzz kill; the relative you leave at home when you go to the museum.

Veronica wrote on Monday, January 21, 2013

I, too, love this website! I have learned so much, and I really appreciate these efforts. I don't think Salman Khan is being cynical. Rather, I think that it is just comes off in contrast to the other discussions between the two art historians--Dr. Harris and Dr. Zucker--vs. an intelligent but more mathematical Mr. Khan. While I prefer the dynamic of the two art historians, it is nice to hear a more casual and broad discussion, particularly on this painting that is so engrained in contemporary culture.

Bahso Sujashi wrote on Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nice. Awesome. Good stuff.

Super Man wrote on Friday, February 22, 2013

I love this website it is awesome, like me!!!!

Amy Cook wrote on Sunday, March 03, 2013

It’s so fascinating that there is copy of the Mona Lisa that is contemporary to Leonardo’s exact time of making! I also wonder what would happen if the ‘original’ were cleaned and made to look more clear and vibrant like the copy. Would this ruin the cult of celebrity that surrounds the painting, or would we still value it just as much? This question really does acknowledge and challenge what our value systems for evaluating art are. Do we love the Mona Lisa because of her sfumato and mystery? Would we love her as much if she suddenly looked different? Furthermore, isn’t it interesting that the Louvre has chosen not to clean her? I think that if the painting was cleaned she would indeed be perceived differently and the Louvre would lose a lot of money as a result. But isn’t the museum/gallery’s role to preserve art and reveal discoveries and new found knowledge? Or should the gallery instead be the preserver of the art historical construct and public expectation? What do you think is the right thing for the Louvre to do with the yellowed Mona Lisa?

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