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The Woman Behind The Mona Lisa Smile Should Remain Anonymous

Ashley Yang |
August 19, 2013 | 11:04 a.m. PDT


The spirit of the Mona Lisa is best maintained by an anonymous subject (Wikimedia Commons)
The spirit of the Mona Lisa is best maintained by an anonymous subject (Wikimedia Commons)
The Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting in the world, and the identity of its model one of Western art history’s greatest mysteries (obviously, since Dan Brown thought to include it in The Da Vinci Code). But to believe that “finding the ‘real’ Mona Lisa” will somehow lead to great revelations in understanding Da Vinci or the work itself would only undermine our present wealth of knowledge about both artist and painting. It would also shatter the mystery that causes our intense fascination with the Mona Lisa, without which it might not be so prominent at all. 

Upon first glance, the Mona Lisa is not so conventionally aesthetically pleasing like Fragonard’s The Swing. Nor is it pointedly evocative, like Munch’s The Scream or strange, like Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. And it most certainly is not just plain weird, like many initially thought (and still do think) of Duchamp’s The Fountain. The Mona Lisa, with the subject’s enigmatic smile and possible androgyny, is just that to the untrained eye: curious. The reasons for its prominence in the highly specialized art world, however, are not so obvious to the plebeian Louvre visitor with no previous exposure to art history. 

When compared to portraits by other High Renaissance artists, the Mona Lisa was painted using techniques beyond its time, making it stunningly life-like. Da Vinci’s placement of the sitter in 3/4 view rather than in profile made the subject appear more realistic. The artist also debuted the chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques that he pioneered, modeling the figure using light contrast and creating a smoky effect on the panel through layers and glazes of oil paint. By rendering obsolete the flat outlines and bright washes of his predecessors, Da Vinci removed the subjects of paintings from their two-dimensional confines and revolutionized the art world in this portrait. 

The Mona Lisa owes its fame to the popular curiosity it draws and the technical innovation it displays, with the anonymity of its subject remaining a trivial concern. Most people who view paintings are probably not overcome with a need to know its history; given that, the identity of the model would hardly be among the first to arise when one has questions about a particular work. Emboldened by advances in DNA technology, our very recent fixation with discovering the identity of the “real Mona Lisa” has only distracted the art world with a sensationalized topic that it has passed over for the past five centuries. We have turned to this question only because our insatiable need to amass knowledge cannot accept the fact that some questions are truly best left unanswered. 

The model’s anonymity has evidently impeded neither aesthetic appreciation nor specialized understanding of the work. It is pointless to break into the tombs of centuries-old Italians and disturb their remains to extract DNA from them in search of the “real” Mona Lisa, because she doesn’t exist. The spirit of the Mona Lisa, one of awesome ingenuity, transcends its subject, and the anonymity of the figure is what has kept that spirit alive and focused. Cluttering our knowledge of the work with unimportant facts will only diminish its allure. 


Reach Columnist Ashley Yang here.



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