“Evaporated like smoke”—that is one of the original meanings of the Italian word sfumato, which in the context of art refers to the gradual, imperceptible transition from one color to another in a composition, a technique that generates soft outlines in paintings. Producing an appearance that feels as if “a veil of smoke had drifted between the subject of the painting and the viewer,” this method is most prominently associated with Leonardo da Vinci and the artwork that enjoys the greatest fanfare over the world, Mona Lisa. Not unsurprisingly, the mystery surrounding the identity of the sitter, the meaning of her enigmatic smile and the relationship between the painting and its many replicas adds to this layer of smoke in a figurative sense. The most fundamental puzzle, though, must be why a yellowing portrait of a plainly dressed woman who meets neither the beauty standards of her time (1400s) nor those of the 21st century continues to captivate people in spite of the intense competition. While publicity, mystique and pure admiration for the painterly techniques employed probably contribute to a very large part of its appeal, genuine beauty may yet be found in the lady.
But first, there is a need to illustrate the extent to which the eponymous Mona Lisa should have paled in comparison to subjects of other portraits. It goes without saying that the woman under Leonardo’s brush is no paragon of youth. Researchers scrutinizing the masterpiece with infrared technology, on the other hand, have captured images suggesting that Mona Lisa was donning a gauzy over-garment worn by expectant women of her time. This hypothesis that she was carrying a child was picked up by Japanese drama Les Gouttes de Dieu, which described childbearing as a period when a woman simultaneously exudes mental strength and tenderness and is at her most beautiful. Perhaps then, Mona Lisa has been subtly channeling the radiant glow of pregnancy, which may have worked its magic on the viewer’s mind.
All the same, Mona Lisa is by no means the only classic painting featuring pregnant subjects. Leonardo’s medieval counterparts, no less, have also portrayed expectant mothers in their works. Raphael, for instance, has depicted one such lady with her hand resting on her swollen belly in a reassuring manner in La Donna Gravida. Sandro Botticelli, too, painted a pregnant woman clutching an embroidered handkerchief over her belly in Portrait of a Lady Known as Smeralda Brandini. Both featured cleaner compositions, brighter colors and subjects with dove-like eyes, all of which could have enhanced a maternal theme. Yet the two ladies hardly convey as much of an aura as Mona Lisa. Then again, the fault may lie with differences in artistic mastery, in the sense that Raphael’s and Sandro Botticelli’s superficial depictions of approaching motherhood through postures and supposedly feminine details are no match for Leonardo’s thoughtful portrayal of a mother’s loving soul by delicate manipulation of light and space. Still, the inferiority of the two women’s appeal remains even if one pictures them drawn with the tones, smooth texture and atmospheric effect adopted in Mona Lisa.
Even so, Leonardo’s world-famous portrait has to hold its own in comparison to its replicas. Yet some of those copies possess facial features that can be seen as surpassing the iconic Mona Lisa’s. In particular, the Isleworth Mona Lisa, presumably an earlier version of Mona Lisa and named after the town near London where the studio of the art collector who rediscovered it was located, has a heart-shaped face, rosy complexion, luscious lips and a much younger appearance. The Prado Mona Lisa, a copy that was probably produced side by side the original and named after its current owner the Prado Museum, similarly boasts a glowing pink complexion, lips with color and gleaming eyes. Some of these nubile characteristics may be present in the classical Mona Lisa, underneath its layers of varnish and dirt or before public exposure exerted its toll on the painting. Undeniably, though, it is in its current appearance that Leonardo’s most well-known Mona Lisa has to contend for modern viewers’ admiration. Besides human arbitrariness, what would move any viewer hypothetically capable of disregarding the painting’s fame and dissociating his affection for the art from affection for the person to regard her as the fairest Mona Lisa of them all?
To address this question, it is useful to examine the nature of beauty, which has been defined as a combination of qualities that gives pleasure to the aesthetic senses or the mind. As lofty as the concept may sound, the forces giving birth to feelings of admiration for one quality or another are probably very simple. As a living species, the human race has long been driven by the natural process of selection to gravitate towards objects, people and ideals that enhance the propagation of its genes. Various physical attributes prized by the opposite gender like facial symmetry, youthful looks and skin redness in women tend to indicate the health condition of an individual. The better a person’s body functions, the more capable it is at producing these attributes and the higher his/her reproductive fitness is supposed to be. Evolution guides us towards potential mates who demonstrate greater fitness by favoring those of us who experience pleasure from the sight of those physical attributes.
Nonetheless, mate selection is only one stage in the quest for gene transmission. Survival of the genes through the generations is near impossible without first securing survival of the individual. The need for immediate survival is thus often stronger than the need for reproduction. Hence, it should be natural that humans reject or guard themselves against people who show signs of hostility and grow attracted to those they detect genuine altruism from. Unfortunately, while such pleasantness in character sometimes colors our perception of a person’s facial attractiveness in certain ways, the physical traits associated with the beauty perceived are generally so amorphous that society can hardly define them. The result is that societal standards of beauty seem to be clearly established only for beauty which signals reproductive fitness, even though people may also appreciate, perhaps especially in times of stress and anxiety, beauty which assures support for immediate survival.
In its present state, Leonardo’s classic Mona Lisa arguably exudes this latter type of ill-defined, non-romantic beauty. Her more muted color scheme, softer lighting and gentler shadows enhances an air of serenity. The lack of ostentatious details on her face and body increases our focus on her smile, which is ambiguous enough that it can take on different meanings depending on our outlook on life and mood for the day. Her steady gaze that meets our eyes directly becomes more intense too, as if it is touching the soul in an understanding manner. In other words, by not aggressively promoting her merits or otherwise imposing herself on us, she invites us inwards—into a world of peace and into our inner selves. This kind of calmness and all-embracing quality may be more valuable to some people than sensual excitement in the face of life’s hardships.
If we think about it, such selflessness and apparent boundless capacity for love are the very characteristics associated with maternal affection. In the end, it probably does not matter whether Mona Lisa was carrying a child or not. To an observer, she can be as empathetic and comforting as a motherly figure. For such an admirer, if this form of beauty were found in a real person, it would be one that does not submit as readily to the relentless march of time.