Leonardo Da Vinci – Mona Lisa (La Jaconde)

The unequalled fame of this portrait rests almost wholly upon one particular kind of appeal: on the expression of a face, and its power to suggest a mysterious personality be-hind it. The immediate effect, for most observers, is an impulse to interpret that expression in terms of some familiar emotion or type of character. Is it a mood of disillusioned irony, one asks, in which Mona Lisa looks out upon the world? Is it weariness, gentle mockery, condescending aloofness .or pitying tenderness that one reads behind that mask of suave control? Thus the observer is tempted to dream romantic mysteries about an imagined woman, while, too often, his eyes pay little heed to the actual picture before him.

Nevertheless, there is something actually here that has power to stimulate such fancies. There is a pictured face, with shadows cunningly arranged to represent slight peculiarities in the shape and tension of the features. Their suggestive power is due in part to brushwork of exquisite subtlety, that could set down unerringly the minutest intended gradations of light and shadow. (Copyists find them almost impossible to reproduce, and the slightest change makes the whole face a caricature.) In addition, that skill was guided by profound knowledge of facial expressions and what they signify, based at once on a sensitive feeling for the nuances of human personality and on keen observation of their slight, momentary signs. In his Last Supper at Milan, Leonardo constructed a whole drama of contrasting personalities, by means of expressive faces and gestures. Here in the Mona Lisa, the peculiarities of feature which he has assembled are more or less like some which we have seen elsewhere — otherwise they would have no meaning to us but we have never seen them in this exact combination. It is not an ordinary combination; it suggests no familiar, simple emotion, as the faces of Fra Angelico do, but rather several at once, that do not commonly go together. It suggests them all rather indefinitely, as in a face where inward feeling is half concealed by sophisticated reserve, or where several half-realized thoughts and fancies together share the mind, and hold it in vague musing contemplation.

In real life we might fail to notice such an expression; it would vanish in a moment, and even while it lasted other things would be competing for our attention. But here nothing competes; the expression is arrested, emphasized. Significant details, such as faint shadows about the eyes and mouth, are put down with the finest precision. Elsewhere, as in the hair and darker portions of the dress, the painting is simpler, less emphatic. A clear light, strongly focussed but not glaring, brings the face into distinct sculptural relief. It accents nothing else but the hands, which likewise express a suave, controlled, inactive personality. There are no exaggerated, melting shadows; Leonardo resorts here to no obvious theatrical trick, as he does in St. John the Baptist (42), to give an air of mystery. The picture relies simply and straight-forwardly on the human interest of the represented face.

It is not displeasing as a purely decorative form, apart from this interest. The modelling has the same direct sensuous charm as the late Greek sculpture which inspired it: the charm of smooth old marble, delicately shaped to take soft, changing highlights and shadows. There is even a hint of design in the way the slight upturning of the lips is repeated, unobtrusively, at the corners of the eyes, and again in the shadows of cheeks and chin. The hands droop downward, reversing the curve. This imparts a quiet undulation which continues in the curves of hair and dress, and in the winding road and river. The coloring is not rich or deep, and the flesh tints have faded from their former crimson to a dead greenish ivory, with only a tinge of rose in the hands. Hair of deep reddish brown, a dress of brown and green, (fairly soft and cloth-like by comparison with other pictures of the time) and a fantastic landscape of russet and pale olive, rising to a phosphorescent sea-green in the sky, frame the dull ivory face in a sombre color-harmony.

These decorative aspects are pleasing, but provide no claim to greatness. The picture stands or falls as a piece of characterization in paint; and as such it ranks in force and interest with the most memorable characters of literature. That appeal is too indirect and specialized, however, to make the picture deeply satisfying to persons who have learned to enjoy the many direct values of design.