What’s special about Mona Lisa?

Most people feel disappointed when they see the most famous painting in the world “Mona Lisa”. Questions like ‘Why is this painting famous?’, ‘Is it worthy enough to be called a masterpiece?’, ‘What makes her unique?’ arise in the minds of hundreds. But if we ignore it all and just look at the painting, we see the greatest psychological portrait ever painted. A portrait that is much more ahead of time that we are still trying to figure out.

Leonardo da Vinci in his sixties moved to the Chateau of Amboise in France with his sketchbooks and one painting “The Mona Lisa”. Because he knows how important the painting was for him.

Leonardo is one of the greatest inquisitive minds in history, a self-made man with an unquenchable appetite for knowledge, and dedicated his life to studying anatomy, geology, and philosophy.

Leonardo da Vinci

The Painting

Mona Lisa was painted on a thin-grained piece of a poplar tree and a layer of lead white. He used glazes that have a very small amount of pigment mixed with the oil. This brought depth and luminosity as the white undercoat of lead reflects the light through the glazes. He used tiny brushstrokes applied super slowly over years. Leonardo pioneered many brushing techniques which brought the paint to life.

Mona Lisa

Clothes and Jewelry

Unlike any other commissioned portraits of the aristocracy we usually see with expensive outfits, Mona Lisa is a pretty simple wealthy woman with no jewelry, clothes that are nothing special, and simple hair.

Leonardo uses the classic pyramid-shaped composition that was introduced during the renaissance. The structure provides stability and provides a central focus. In this painting, the focus is directed towards her face.

What makes her different?

Instead of a full-length pose, Leonardo had painted Mona Lisa in a three-quarter length to cut down the distractions. Today this pose is normal but on those days it was groundbreaking. Previously the people in the portrait are erect, but Mona Lisa is relaxed with hands resting gently.

If you look at Mona Lisa’s eyes you see they are staring at you, but women in paintings never did that. The background of any other portrait has a simple background of either an open sky or a room but the background of the Mona Lisa is a complex aerial perspective of a landscape. The curves of her hair and clothing reflect the valleys and river flowing connecting humanity and nature. If you look at the background and compare the horizons on both sides you see it is not lined up. This visual trick gives an illusion of movement.

level of horizons

Her eyes and smile follows you

Leonardo has used the Sfumato technique to paint Mona Lisa’s eyes. It creates a depth near the eyes of Mona Lisa which is unusual in the case of other paintings and sculptures. Leonardo has studied human anatomy, the structure of a human face, and smiles exposing the muscles and nerves. He started researching how a smile works and analyzed every possible movement of the face. Artists never painted a smiling face before, portraits are generally serious. When you look into her eyes first she smiles then she is not. The smile comes and goes as we look deep into her face. When we look away smile stays.

Leonardo from his optic studies observed that the light comes and hits the whole retina instead of hitting at one point. This was the key to her mysterious smile.

The human eye has two different regions for seeing the world one is a central area called the fovea(to read colors) and the other is the peripheral area(to see the black and white motion and shadows). When we focus on the eyes the peripheral vision is on the smile and pick up the shadows from her cheekbones. When you look at her smile directly you cannot see the shadows, and she isn’t smiling but smirking. This is not your imagination, but it is about how you see.

Her eye’s on you!
Inner part of the eye

Sfumato technique

Sfumato is a blending technique for softening the transition between colors to make sure there are no sharp lines, layer by layer he blended everything in Sfumato style.


chiaroscuro is an effect of contrasted light and shadow that gives a 3D effect.

These styles were never seen before Mona Lisa. Hence, seeing Mona Lisa for the first time must have been astonishing. How genius Leonardo da Vinci is that he understood this 500 years ago.

credits to the right owners of the pictures used.