However, there are elements of the painting itself that are worthy of note. The Mona Lisa allows the viewer to participate in a mystery; why is she smiling in an enigmatic way? Who is she? Although she was probably Lisa Gherardini there are no definitive records of the commission. Neither the subject nor her husband are of any particular historical importance, but the controversy over the subject has led to much debate, which in turn has led to notoriety. The realism of the painting, in a time when most portraits were idealized, based on mythology, religion, or history, is somewhat novel. Just as with Picasso and cubism, Van Gogh with Impressionism, or Warhol with Pop Art, any time an artist breaks with the past a work of art may become important for marking a broad turning point which will influence many other artists. But in this case, not so much. The Mona Lisa is realistic, but not in any truly path breaking way, except, perhaps, for the subject’s expression. In most cases with art of this time there is no question as to what the subject is doing or thinking; it was not a time when artists tried to be ambiguous or ironic.
It’s helpful to look at other famous paintings created around this time, and compare them to the Mona Lisa.
Any of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are, even at first glance, startling, with images that seem to come straight out of Hell. Love it or hate it, Bosch is clearly a startling and creative artist with a unique vision, and the Garden of Earthly Delights is a fine example of his work.
The School of Athens by Raphael had a famous patron; the Pope, and an eternal subject; the pursuit of truth through reason and philosophy. Its subjects include the most learned men in history; Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and many others. It’s also a huge painting.
The Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo was a superhuman task, 45 x 128 feet, painted over 4 years, much of it done while the artist was lying on his back on scaffolding. Whereas the Mona Lisa is a single, pretty simple figure, the Sistine Chapel involves over 300 figures. As an achievement of painting, the Mona Lisa is not even in the same universe as the Sistine Chapel. Yet the Mona Lisa is more famous. This is partly for logistical reasons. The Mona Lisa has become world famous as it has been shown throughout the world; in 1963 it was shown in New York and Washington; in 1974 it was exhibited in Tokyo and Moscow. The Sistine Chapel is, of course, not portable; you have always had to go to the Vatican to see it.
Brueghel The Elder
The Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel The Elder is a work of amazing craftsmanship that illustrates more than a 100 proverbs and moral sayings; it is important as a moral teaching tool about the blind leading the blind, banging one’s head against the wall, not crying over spilled milk, throwing money down the drain, and many more proverbs that are as relevant today as when the painting was painted. Despite its serious lessons, the painting is quite humorous. But not nearly as famous as Lisa.