At Gallerie Michael in Beverly Hills last Saturday, art historian Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts presented his work with Dr. Christopher Heath Brown on the story behind Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. The duo’s theory is the subject of a new book and upcoming movie, The Mona Lisa Myth.
At the Gallerie Michael, Isbouts emphasized that recorded descriptions of the painting often do not match the painting that we know. For instance, DaVinci’s biographer, the 16th century artist and author Giorgio Vasari, described the “pearly glow” of her skin and the detail in her eyebrows, neither of which is visible in the Louvre Mona Lisa, and he also called it unfinished, despite the painting’s completed look. The work is also supposed to have been done in 1503, but its style is much more like DaVinci’s later work.
Isbouts explained that carbon dating, combined with a note written by DaVinci’s contemporary Agostino Vespucci, have lately given us a major clue: the Isleworth Mona Lisa – a “copy” found before WWI and owned by Henry Pulitzer – is actually the original version. Analysis shows the work to be from the year 1503, and Vespucci’s note tells us that a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco Giocondo, was painted by DaVinci that year, as payment for Giocondo’s securing of a major commission for DaVinci: the “Battle of Anghiari” fresco in Florence. And, as shown in the contrasted images above, it features glowing skin and (faint) eyebrows, and the sky in the background was left unfinished, with under-layers showing through.
While this is an exciting discovery, it leaves the question of why DaVinci would paint a second Mona Lisa around 1510? Isbouts points out that DaVinci, whose mother died when he was young, and whose paintings largely represent the Virgin Mary – despite his disassociation with the church – was fascinated by motherhood. The artist risked great scandal by dissecting female cadavers, something that was condemned by the church (who always were involved in our reproductive business…), to try and understand how babies were born. (another photo after the jump)
Therefore when he painted the Louvre version of the Mona Lisa, it seems likely that it was with the theme of motherhood in mind, much like his other last great works: St. Anne and Leda and the Swan. It’s especially suggested by X-Rays of the painting that have revealed a guarnello, or maternal veil, over her hair. At the time of Lisa Gherardini/Giocondo’s portrait, she had recently given birth and is shown wearing a guarnello. Isbouts suggests that DaVinci’s old portrait came to his mind as a model for a painting of motherhood, but this time he made the landscape behind her primordial to symbolize creation. (I have to admit I never really looked at the background before, and now I find it interesting.)
Dr. Isbouts’ presentation, which included film clips and large replicas of the paintings, was very compelling. Knowing DaVinci’s interests, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to interpret the final Mona Lisa‘s mysterious smile as hiding the secrets of motherhood and creation. There was one thing Isbouts mentioned, however, that he should probably steer away from, and that is his idea that DaVinci’s loss of his mother and obsession with motherhood, was the reason that he was gay (as historians believe), because he couldn’t see women as objects of desire, but only as mothers..! Hmm.
Images courtesy of Relevant Communications