The Smile in Collage’s Mirror

Her portrait is one of the best-known and most readily recognized images in the world. The artist who painted her likeness is as famous as the picture: a restless, ambitious man with many talents, who completed few paintings because his expertise as a civil and military engineer and scientist was constantly in demand among the noblemen of his country.

Gioconda Variations (2013). Digital collage created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.

Gioconda Variations (2013). Digital collage created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.

The sitter came from a prominent but not wealthy aristocratic family. She married a moderately successful merchant. A pun on his surname, del Giocondo, has become the nickname for the portrait: “La Gioconda,” the “Cheerful Woman.” She and her husband raised five children. The couple apparently loved each other; they and their children prospered modestly and lived happily uneventful, middle-class lives, in a turbulent and politically unstable city not noted for uneventful lives. The merchant apparently commissioned the portrait of his wife to celebrate their first purchase of a home and the birth of one of their children. The artist labored over the painting for three years, but regarded it as incomplete. He never delivered it to his client, nor did the client pay him. The portrait remained in the artist’s possession for the rest of his life; when he died in a foreign country, the picture was bequeathed to his assistant, who sold it for a small sum to the country’s king. The painting has resided in that country for nearly five centuries.

Why has this portrait of Lisa del Giocondo by Leonardo da Vinci become so famous, so copied, so caricatured and mocked? By the standards of da Vinci himself, it is not an extraordinary work; critics hold several other da Vinci paintings in higher esteem. The composition of La Gioconda seems static and symmetrical, the background landscape conventional and undistinguished, the sitter plainly dressed and unadorned, and her expression mask-like and inscrutable. How could so plain a portrait of so unremarkable a subject—among the myriad plain portraits of unremarkable people painted during the Renaissance—have inspired such fascination, ridicule, and adoration?

The answer may have two aspects.

The first aspect is related to the modern emergence of mass-media. Although well-known among visitors to the Louvre, the picture began attracting global attention in the nineteenth century, when publishing became mechanized and artwork was first widely reproduced in books and magazines. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, color lithographic reproduction was perfected, making inexpensive art books and prints available to a large audience. In 1911, Lisa’s portrait received unexpected publicity when it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian museum employee who wished to see it returned to Italy. It appeared in Italy in 1913, was widely exhibited there, and then was returned to the Louvre. Since that time the portrait and the rumors surrounding its disappearance (Picasso and the French poet Apollinaire were once suspects in the theft) have never left the public imagination.

The second aspect is the picture’s plainness. Da Vinci’s genius as a painter imbued an understated portrait of an unassuming sitter with an atmosphere that irresistibly draws the viewer into the picture. A portrait in which the subject gazes straight outwards, at a right angle to the portrait’s surface, gives the impression that the subject’s eyes follow a viewer about the room. This is a well-known illusion. Usually it elicits a briefly disquieting feeling in the viewer, who shrugs it off with a laugh or a shudder, and then moves on to look at other works. But Lisa’s portrait is different: once her image takes hold of our attention, it does not let go for some time. We stare at her and our fascination grows. There is nothing extraordinary about her except her smile, which is as demure as her bearing. The smile is too modest to be joyous, too faint to be smug; what can it mean? Our eyes and imaginations roam outward from that smile across the rest of the picture, only to return to the enigmatic smile. Lisa’s dress and the plainness of her surroundings afford us no clue. We have not solved the mystery, but we sense that it exists.

From that point begin the stories and theories. Frustrated or dissatisfied with an unanswered question, each of us formulates an answer. Artists and writers have ventured many explanations; some serious, some joking. The portrait has inspired many parodies, satires, and appropriated artworks; also many meditations on art and philosophy.

In history, the pull of the Mona Lisa upon our imaginations can be likened to a scene in a theater: its legend, loss, and reappearance shine a spotlight on the portrait; the image of Lisa confronts the audience with a smiling, motionless soliloquy in pantomime. But as in a theater, the image of the actor is finally a mirror in which we, the audience, see our inner lives and selves reflected.

(All artwork, descriptions, & other text created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)


{ 60 comments… add one }

  • stevebethere March 5, 2013, 11:06 am

    Fabulous! I envy your imagination 😉

    Have a fantabulosa week :-)

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 1:22 pm

      Thanks very much, Steve! Looking forward to visiting your page. I hope you have una semana maravillosa!

  • Tammi @ My Organized Chaos March 5, 2013, 11:47 am

    Seeing the Mona Lisa was one of my fave parts about going to Paris!

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 1:24 pm

      Mine too. But I still remember the shock I felt at seeing it behind bulletproof glass. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I’d thought that I’d be able to get as close to the original as I could to the reproductions!

      • aquariann March 6, 2013, 1:46 pm

        I wasn’t expecting the bulletproof glass, either – but with all the crazies out there, it’s better safe than sorry!

        Your collage is marvelous. As was the sadly sweet comment you left on my blog about your late first wife last week.

        ♥ aquariann
        Featured Photo: Pink Gerbera Daisy

        • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 3:03 pm

          Thanks so much for your kind words, Aquariann! I appreciate them very much. Yes, it is a wise precaution. (Strange how many nuts get drawn to anything or anyone out in public, and then choose to act out!)

  • Robin from Israel March 5, 2013, 1:38 pm

    My 9 year old daughter would love this piece. She’s completely enchanted with the Mona Lisa – even asking for a framed print for her birthday, which now hangs in pride of place right over her bed.

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 2:15 pm

      Thanks, Robin! I hope you can show it to her. Cautiously entering Shameless Plug Territory, I’d like to mention that this piece (as well as nearly every collage I’ve posted in Art of RetroCollage) is available as a full-color print in a variety of sizes: in this case, from 8″ x 8″ up to 48″ x 48″. Just click on the collage for more information. Thanks for your comment!

  • Alissa Apel March 5, 2013, 4:55 pm

    You have to watch this: It’s really interesting! It’s about another Mona Lisa.

  • AVCr8teur March 5, 2013, 5:41 pm

    I think every culture is familiar with this painting. Even my husband tried to draw her.

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 9:14 pm

      Pretty nearly every culture on earth. Thanks for your comment!

  • Leovi March 5, 2013, 5:51 pm

    Excellent collage with La Gioconda. Greetings.

  • Dominique Goh@Dominique's Desk March 5, 2013, 6:01 pm

    Lovely collage of Mona Lisa. Happy WW

  • Judy Haughton-James March 5, 2013, 6:47 pm

    It is great to see these pictures. The Mona Lisa portrait is indeed world renown! Thanks for sharing this wonderful post and Happy WW!

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 9:26 pm

      Thanks very much for your visit and your kind comment, Judy. Glad you like the collage. Have a great WW!

  • Indrani March 5, 2013, 7:26 pm

    I never knew so much about this portrait! Thanks for the info on this.

  • OneDay/LadyJC March 5, 2013, 7:27 pm

    Can’t go wrong with the Mona Lisa! Beautiful collage. Happy WW!

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 10:06 pm

      Thanks very much! I appreciate your kind words. Happy WW!

  • DrillerAA March 5, 2013, 8:01 pm

    What a great take on this image. Very nice.
    A friend of mine showed me a video that you might enjoy. The graphic artist featured is incredible. Go to YouTube and search for “The Making of John Mayer’s Album Cover”. Happy WW.

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 10:11 pm

      Thanks very much for your kind comment! And thank you very much for the incredible video you pointed me to. What amazing artistry. (Somehow, no words are equal to the task of describing it.) Mind-blowing!

  • Diana March 5, 2013, 9:31 pm

    This is probably my favourite collage yet.

  • Theresa March 5, 2013, 9:48 pm

    I love Mona Lisa artwork. This one is very neat!

  • Joyce March 5, 2013, 10:18 pm

    After a trip to Paris, I was surprised to learned that the real painting is not much larger than your print.

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 10:24 pm

      I’d almost forgotten that! Thanks for the reminder. Yes, it is pretty small. By the time I first saw it, in the late 1960s, the Mona Lisa was exhibited behind bulletproof glass, which was another shock: imagine a painting needing Secret-Service-caliber protection. Thanks very much for your comment!

  • veronica lee March 5, 2013, 11:29 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by Mona Lisa! Love the collage! Neat!

    • Eric Edelman March 5, 2013, 11:42 pm

      Thank you very much, Veronica! The painting has also fascinated me, but until recently I’ve never experimented with it in collage.

  • jessica @peekababy March 6, 2013, 12:40 am

    It is amazing how once something captures the public imagination it really maintains is forevermore.

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 1:46 am

      Very true, Jessica; especially true of images. So we continue to remember the looks of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allan Poe…and of course, Mona Lisa.

  • Sukhmandir Kaur March 6, 2013, 12:42 am

    I wonder how many times he had to ask her to be still and not to move while painting her portrait, perhaps it became a joke between them that he captured in paint :) Thanks for all the interesting intriguing information.

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 1:48 am

      My guess is not many times. The pose is easy to hold, and she seems to have been a good-natured person. Thanks very much for your comment.

  • Daryl March 6, 2013, 5:59 am

    Mona Lisa never looked so good

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 6:06 am

      Thanks very much, Daryl–that’s very sweet of you to say!

  • Robin (Masshole Mommy) March 6, 2013, 6:05 am

    This is absolutely gorgeous! I love it.

  • Pamela March 6, 2013, 7:26 am

    Thank you for linking up at It’s My Life! I enjoyed your post!

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 2:19 pm

      Thanks very much for your visit and kind comment, Pamela. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Janet@TheCatOnMyHead March 6, 2013, 9:58 am

    Though I have seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, you have provided much information (as you always do) that I did not know. Thanks, Janet

  • Nan March 6, 2013, 9:58 am

    Happy WW.

  • posh March 6, 2013, 12:07 pm

    I’ve seen a lot of interesting Mona’s recently posted on Facebook.

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 2:52 pm

      Interesting…could you post some links? I’d love to see them. Thanks for your comment!

  • Cassandra March 6, 2013, 1:24 pm

    That is absolutely a beautiful painting of Mona Lisa!

    Stopping by from WW- hope you can stop by…

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 2:54 pm

      Thanks very much, Cassandra! I appreciate your kind words.

  • Lily @Militaryfamof8 March 6, 2013, 3:03 pm

    Thank you for hosting WW with a linky, I have a linky on mine as well if you’d like to visit.

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 3:06 pm

      Thanks for visiting! Looking forward to linking up on your site.

  • Rosey March 6, 2013, 7:58 pm

    That’s awesome to read some history behind it. We saw it once and were just surprised at how small it was, we’d both (my husband and I) imagined it to be bigger. And of course it was surrounded by people trying to catch a glimpse … probably the most busy painting we came across that day.

    • Eric Edelman March 6, 2013, 8:32 pm

      Yes, the small size of it struck me too, as I’ve remarked to a couple of people who commented here. But now that I think about it, part of that might have been due to how far away from it we were forced to stand, what with the railings and the bulletproof glass barrier. Thanks for your comment, Rosie!

  • Tracy @ Ascending Butterfly March 7, 2013, 2:25 am

    And in other Mona Lisa assorted trivia, she is the subject of a rap song by Slick Rick the Ruler! 😉

    Thanks for stimulating our grey matter each Wordless Wednesday and thanks for the linky, I linked up!

    • Eric Edelman March 7, 2013, 9:29 am

      Thanks for your visit and comment, Tracy–I’ll be checking it out!

  • Tina´s PicStory March 8, 2013, 5:46 am

    so cool! :)

  • Paula J March 8, 2013, 10:23 am

    I’ve always loved that painting…so mysterious :)

    • Eric Edelman March 8, 2013, 3:10 pm

      I have also…I could spend hours looking at it. Thanks very much for your comment, Paula!

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