Art appreciation is a subject that can involve the whole family and inspire enthusiastic weekend visits to museums. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa has an arresting backstory and is so famous that learning about it will engage even young children. Teaching kids about La Gioconda and the genius of her creator is an opportunity to include lessons on Da Vinci himself, Renaissance Italy and the subtleties artists observe to achieve their most memorable work.
Leonardo da Vinci's genius was so comprehensive that he spread his perfectionist efforts among inventing, sculpture, architecture and painting. There are few extant paintings by him, but one that he never finished has become the single most celebrated painting of all time. Known as the Mona Lisa, the name of its reputed subject, the oil is also referred to as La Gioconda or the wife of Giocondo. The merchant Francesco del Giocondo may have commissioned the portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa Gherardini, after the birth of his third child and the purchase of a grand new home. That is history's best guess. Da Vinci is reported to have worked on the groundbreaking painting for four years and it remained incomplete at his death.
Tricks of Light
The unexplained half-smile of the 500-year-old lady continues to inspire speculation, but it is the innovative artistry of the painter that accounts for her enduring popularity. Mona Lisa was painted on a single poplar panel with multiple layers of oils and glazes that give the illusion of light and depth. Da Vinci used light and shadow to make his figures look real and "framed" his subject with an almost unseen balustrade that enhanced the perception of the distant background. The blue horizon is on the same plane as Mona Lisa's eyes, her neck and head are entirely framed by the blue water and sky. This most dramatic contrast in the painting -- between sitter and setting -- focuses attention on her face. The gentle twist of the body, careful detail, play of light, and "eye contact" with the viewer give the impression of volume and dimension. Mona Lisa looks like a living sculpture, not a flat cartoon figure.
Sfumato, an Italian word meaning "vanished" or "evaporated" like smoke, is a painter's trick taken to a new level by Leonardo in the creation of the Mona Lisa. His brush strokes were so fine that they are nearly invisible. He uses them to blend most borders, eliminating a visible transition between light and shade. The hint of a gleam in the gold embroidery along the neckline of her dress seems real because the delicate gold threads are extremely thin and flow over the garment like real stitching. Her nearly transparent veil rests lightly on her forehead and reveals a gauzy glimpse of the far-off landscape through its folds along the side of her face. The Mona Lisa delivers a strong impression, but it was crafted with scientific knowledge and almost unimaginable finesse.
Mona Lisa's Great Adventure
In 1911, a workman who had been helping to install protective glass over some of the Louvre's more popular art works hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. He secured it in the false bottom of a trunk, bluffed his way past a police inquiry and watched as Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire were briefly arrested in connection with the theft. By the time the thief had smuggled the painting back to Italy and tried to sell it to a dealer, the world knew about Da Vinci's kidnapped beauty and her missing smile. Her abductor served only eight months in prison, but his brazen theft drew so much attention to the painting that it became the Louvre's biggest draw. Today, more than eight million people a year line up for hours to spend a few moments gazing at Mona Lisa's mysterious smile.