The Painting 

Landscape / Background
Choice of lighting
Painting style and other formal elements
Mystery Identity

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The Painting

Landscape / Background

The entire background of the Mona Lisa is a landscape. The subject is not placed under an open sky. Compared with other portraits, the Mona Lisa takes in the greatest distance, the most water, the densest atmosphere, the loftiest peaks. It also seems to be more than just a background, to be a additional imposing presence within the picture, the expanse and curvature indicating no mere scene but a portion of the globe itself.

Leonardo da Vinci provided the Mona Lisa with a background that is every odd, although not so often discussed, as the famous smile. It is a two-storied structure, like one of those double churches in which Gothic builders sometimes indulged their talents for the unexpected: below there is a relatively - or formerly - human landscape, with a bridge that spans a partly dry riverbed and a road that winds to a hidden end through hot reddish brown rocks; above there is a frosty region with two glaucous lakes, or sea inlets, and a mountain range whose jagged spires vary from olive green to light blue and finally become transparent in the flooding light of the distant horizon. One can be reminded of the Italian Alps and of parts of Tuscany, but there is no point in seeking a real location, for obviously this is an assembled landscape (McMullen, 91).

One might imagine that Leonardo considered adding indications of greenery to the background or a verifiable emblematic detail, but as it is, the landscape has little to do with the sitter herself than with the artist's desire to elaborate the composition, and, perhaps to enhance the beauty of the figure by way of contrast, such as the welcoming look on the face and the forbidding look of the scenery.

The blue mountains appear to recede into the vaporous distance according to the rules for aerial perspective. The space of the landscape itself, except for the aerial perspective at the top, is astonishingly unsystematic; there are several possible vanishing points, and there is no regular recession to provide clues to the relative sizes of the rocky features. Actually, the whole panorama can be read as simply a combination of distinct landscape bands, brown below and blue above, and the illusion of a vast expanse is due to the superposition of the bands rather than to any serious use of the optical principle of the convergence of the preceding parallels (McMullen, 109).

Beneath the problems of execution and temperament there may have been one of philosophical outlook, for although Leonardo certainly thought himself as a realist he seems to have been uncertain about the exact kind of realist he was. In his mathematical moods he was ready to argue that reality was an inflexible structure of laws and harmonies and that painting compels the mind of a painter to transform itself into the minds of nature itself and to translate between nature and art, setting out, with nature, the causes of nature's phenomena regulated by nature's laws.

Choice of lighting

Faint illumination. Near twilight depicted in the Mona Lisa. Leonardo favored this type of lighting for portraiture.

The responsiveness of the Mona Lisa to changes of lighting is unusual, perhaps unique. The Mona Lisa suffers little under light-adapted vision and gain little under dark adaptation. By contrast, the degree of change in the tonal range resembles that which occurs with a natural object.

Painting style and other formal elements

Leonardo explains color perspective this way, ". . . through variations in the air we are made aware of the different distances of various buildings. . . therefore make the first building. . . its own color; the next most distant make more blue. . . at another distance bluer yet and that which is five time more distant make five times more blue." This principle is demonstrated in the background of Mona Lisa: the ground and hills directly behind the subject are painted in warm tones of reddish browns and tans. As the landscape recedes the mountains and water become progressively more blue. Leonardo also noted that air is more dense closest to the earth, therefore the bases of hills will always appear lighter than the summit; he applies this theory to the hills behind the sitter's shoulders which start out a tan color and become dark brown (Kemp, 83-84).

His study of shadow can be related to his works in both compositional arrangement and in sfumato** techniques, which are both demonstrated in the Mona Lisa. One method of composition employed by Leonardo involved focus and blur. In the Mona Lisa Leonardo uses shadow in the lowest areas of the picture plane, at the edges, and background of the landscape to blur detail and draw attention to the detailed focus area of the face. Leonardo also uses shadow as a primary element in creating sfumato or soft focus, which creates the illusion of volume by allowing light to emerge from the darkness of shadow. The sitter's body in Mona Lisa emerges from the shadows surrounding her from the mid arm area down. Her hands are areas of light that emerge form the blurred shadows of her body and her face emerges from darkly shadowed areas of hair and veiling. Leonardo's study of the shape of shadow contributed to the blurred shadow edges that are a hallmark of the sfumato style. The Mona Lisa's body and face are enclosed within shadow, but no shadow edges ever become evident (Dunning, 82).

In the Mona Lisa the subject comes closer to the front edge of the picture than had been customary hitherto: this smaller distance between sitter and viewer heightens the intensity of the visual impression while the landscape suggests greater spatial depths and atmospheric intensity. Craggy mountains disappear into the distance against a greenish-blue sky. On the left we can make out a stream and on the right we can see what looks like a dry river-bed, although it is not possible to tell quite how this connects, if at all, with a reservoir higher up. Individual outcrops in the landscape, bereft of vegetation, are reminiscent of similar rock formations in religious pictures that Leonardo had begun not long before. Indeed the formal affinity between this work and depictions of the Madonna cannot be dismissed, as is frequently the case in Renaissance portraits of women. The Mother of God was regarded as the ideal to which every honourable woman would aspire, and this is reflected in the formal parallels between depictions of the Madonna and portraits of women. Even the smile of the Mona Lisa is related to the smiles of St Anne and of the Virgin: indeed a smile of this kind was part of the standard repertoire of painters in the late 1400s and early 1500s. In addition, the Mona Lisa's smile also matches contemporary views on feminine charm: the beauty of a contented, modest female smile was a reflection of that woman's beauty and, hence, also of her virtue. Beauty was taken in those days to be an expression of virtue, external beauty was an embellishment of virtue - as demonstrated earlier by Leonardo in his Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci (Zöllner).

**Sfumato is the famous invention of Da Vinci - light and shade that allow one form to blend in with another leaving something to the imagination. He did this to the corners of Mona Lisa’ mouth and eyes which explains why she may look different and different times.

Did you know?
The painting has been a part of France's royal collection since the early 16th century. King Francis I purchased the painting from Leonardo after the artist accepted his invitation to live in France in 1517.

Mona Lisa viewers at the Louvre in 1952. Photographer: Robert Doisneau


2001 Jay Meattle.
FAH 189 Multimedia and the Visual Arts (Spring 2001)