The Art Assignment

S3 E33 | FULL EPISODE

Better Know the Mona Lisa

She's probably the most famous artwork of all time, but what do you know about her? It's time to better know the Mona Lisa.

AIRED: April 06, 2017 | 0:05:24
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TRANSCRIPT

Jay-Z and Beyonce posed with her.

Kardashians posed with her.

So did Tony Danza, Cara Delevingne, even

Richard Simmons.

Nat King Cole sang about her; so did will.i.am.

She was famously stolen in 1911.

Marcel Duchamp parodied her in 1919.

Someone more recently made a towel out of her.

But who is she?

Why, after centuries, do we continue to flock to her?

Let's better know the Mona Lisa.

14 00:00:31,620 --> 00:00:35,160 Leonardo da Vinci-- yep, the original Renaissance man,

who painted "The Last Supper" and was also

an inventor, architect, engineer, and scientist--

began the portrait in 1533, while living in Florence.

It was the height of the Italian Renaissance,

when a mounting interest in humanism, as well as a growing

merchant class with disposable income,

had popularized portrait-painting.

We call it the "Mona Lisa," "Mona" being

short for "Madonna," or "lady," and his subject

is almost definitely Lisa del Giocondo, a Florentine who

married a cloth merchant at the age of 15

and would have been about 24 when it was painted.

Italians call the painting "La Gioconda," the feminine form

of her married name.

And the French likewise call it "La Joconde,"

which conveniently invokes the Latin "jocundus"

and its derivatives, meaning "pleasant" or "agreeable."

Lisa's husband, Francesco, likely

commissioned the portrait on the occasion of their moving

into a new home, or possibly after the birth

of one of their children.

But the portrait never actually got to them.

Francesco might not have paid for it,

or Leonardo could have put off finishing it

for a more important commission.

But the painting remained in the artist's possession

until his death in 1519, after he

had joined the royal court of King Francois I. From there,

the painting became the property of the king.

And, after a stay at Versailles, it eventually

made its way to the Louvre, in the late 18th century.

There it has remained-- except when this guy walked it out

of the museum, under his shirt, hid it for two years,

and then tried to return the painting

to an Italian museum which he felt was its rightful home.

Then it was back to the Louvre, until World War II came along,

and it was shuffled around France for safekeeping,

sometimes even on a stretcher in an ambulance.

It went from a chateau in the Loire valley,

to an abbey in the south of France,

to museums farther south, until it could finally

be returned to Paris after the end of the war.

While many portraits of the time were more closely

cropped and painted in profile, Lisa

is oriented more frontally and shown in half length.

Her hands are included, with her right resting delicately

over top the left.

And she's dressed fairly unremarkably--

not trying to show off with the latest trends.

She's seated in a chair, in a loggia, or an open-air room,

which looks out over a landscape.

It was made with oil paint on wood panel, using a technique

Leonardo liked called "sfumato"--

what a great word!

Say it with me-- "sfumato"--

which is the kind of smudgy, smoky

haziness you see, especially around her eyes and mouth.

It contributes to the softness and realness of Lisa

but also gives an atmospheric effect

that is almost otherworldly.

He used the same effect in some biblical scenes.

You see it here in the shading around the Virgin Mary's neck.

But our decidedly secular subject, Lisa,

while rendered hazily, is looking directly out at us--

and with her famous smile, if that's what

you call this expression.

In 2005, researchers ran the image

through emotion-recognition software, which rated features

like curvature around the lips and crinkles around the eyes,

finding the expression to be 83% happy, 9% disgusted,

6% fearful, 2% angry, less than 1% neutral, and 0% surprised.

So it's a smile, but it's not an empty smile.

There's a knowingness to it-- a smile in spite of everything,

as if she knows she's caught in this painting,

in her own turbulent time, looking out at us, whoever

we are, in our turbulent time.

Which is perhaps what makes it so indelible an image.

It has always been one of the treasures of the Louvre

collection, but it wasn't until after its 1911 theft

that it reached superstardom.

In the two days after it was returned,

more than 100,000 people came to see it.

And they really haven't stopped since then,

with millions meeting her gaze each year.

Many copies of the painting exist,

and much debate about who painted them.

Researchers recently found that one version, at the Prado,

was probably painted by an artist sitting

right next to Leonardo, following his actions, stroke

by stroke.

But even that one, while striking,

doesn't capture the mystery and majesty of the original.

There are nude Mona Lisas and, of course, many plays

on the original, with artists from Botero,

who painted a Lisa at age 12 and as an adult,

and Warhol, who drew the connection

between this original celebrity and the subjects of more

recent paparazzi.

It doesn't appear that our attention to this painting

is waning.

In fact, it might even be rising, as the internet offers

us countless reproductions, reinterpretations,

merchandisfications, and bastardisations.

Which raises the question of whether, at this point,

the "Mona Lisa" is famous primarily

because it's a masterpiece or famous primarily

because it's famous.

It may be that our identification with Lisa

is more intense than ever, as we see around us

more and more images of ourselves

looking out, staring into the eyes of unknown millions.

127 00:05:23,604 --> 00:05:25,020 While you're at it, would you like

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