Surprisingly little is known about this small panel painting, despite the fact that it is arguably the most famous painting in the world.
However, the sitter can be identified with some confidence as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a prominent Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo (hence the painting is sometimes referred to as “La Gioconda”) who may have commissioned it to mark his setting up home and the birth of his son, Andrea.
The picture was begun in Florence around 1503-04, where it was seen by Raphael amongst others, but was probably not finished until much later – possibly as late as 1516, by which time Leonardo was working and living in France.
Elements of the Mona Lisa, in particular the half-length figure with a three-quarter turn towards the viewer, and the ballustrade with pillars seen behind connecting the foreground with the landscape, are derived from the Florentine and Umbrian tradition of portrait painting, but originated in the Flemish tradition of the early 15th century.
However, Leonardo went far beyond tradition in his painting. The placement of the sitter close to the picture plane, heightens the sense of the figure’s presence, while her position high above a receding landscape conveys an incredible sense of spatial depth and distance. The atmospheric intensity achieved through the sfumato or “smokey” effect of the painting is also highly innovative, and adds to the sense of mystery that pervades every element of the painting.
Mona Lisa’s smile has intrigued scholars for centuries and its true meaning continues to illude us. It is important to note, however, that the sitter’s expression matches contemporary views on feminine charm; the beauty of a contented, modest female smile was a reflection of that woman’s beauty, and therefore, also her virtue, as is the case in Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci.
The evocative impact of the portrait is due in no small part to the artistry of the pictorial light that pervades the landscape and which causes the subject to stand out from her setting. In the Mona Lisa, Leonardo achieves an unprecedented impression of plasticity, particularly in the flesh-tones of the face and hands, evoking the life and presence of the sitter in a way that has rarely been achieved by other painters.