It was a new day in Paris and the Louvre called to me. So did the chocolate croissants. After breakfast, we travelled to the 1st Arrondissement. We walked through majestic arches of the Louvre fortress, part of what remains of the royal Palace estate. In the center of the courtyard we came upon the famous glass pyramid that marked the entrance to the world’s largest museum.

The Louvre

   We descended into the home of 35,000 works of art, masterpieces glittering in gold, sculptures towering in smooth marble, ornate ceiling frescoes. And, according to my sons, it all smelled like pee. Sadly, I had to agree.

     Despite this and the growing sensory overload, it was amazing. I focused us on the Roman and Greek sculptures first. Over the past year or two, my kids have inhaled all the Greek and Roman stories of the gods they could get their hands on. They excitedly searched for the marble gods and taught me the background story for each one. Some sculptures were just remnants of a body that had been recovered. Some depicted whole scenes from a story.

Hercules fighting the Hydra
Hercules vs. the Hydra

Venus de Milo
Aphrodite/ Venus de Milo

Pan playing the flute
Pan playing the flute

     After awhile, we made our way to one of the ten most famous artworks in the Louvre. My kids wanted to see the Mona Lisa, so we waited in the press of the crowd for our turn to get up close. Or as close as you can get to a painting behind thick glass and a barrier. But the wall of people never cleared enough for my (shorter) kids to get good view. In the end, I just held up my younger son so he could see better and we squeezed our way back out. The experience brought up the question almost as famous as the painting itself- why is the Mona Lisa famous? Why was everyone pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of this small portrait of a woman?

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa (photo: Vanity Fair)

     There are some theories about that, the first of which is that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to use optical illusions in his painting. Leonardo used a technique called “sfumato” to create her enigmatic smile. Meaning “smoke,” sfumato is the practice of meticulously applying hundreds of thin layers of paint, with drying time between each layer. This created a shadow scheme on the face that plays with our peripheral vision. When we look at Mona Lisa’s eyes, she appears to be smiling. As our focus shifts to her lips, the smile disappears. It’s the art of shadow play. Leonardo also created the illusion that she turns her face by playing with the background. If you look closely, you’ll realize that the background is actually two separate landscapes with Mona Lisa in the middle. Although they are the same colors, the landscape on the left is closer than that on the right. As your eyes move horizontally over the portrait, your brain makes a little jump to align everything and she seems to turn her face.

     Another theory for its popularity is that there are lots of controversies associated with the portrait. We do love juicy gossip! It was rumored that Leonardo didn’t want to deliver the

Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci self portrait combined
Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci self portrait combined

painting to the nobleman who had commissioned it because had a love affair with the sitter- the nobleman’s wife. Scandalous. Probably not true, since he was suspected of being homosexual. In fact, it could have been that the Mona Lisa was the feminine portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself. His self portrait of 1512 has almost the exact same face as the  Mona Lisa. If you really look, her face has masculine and feminine features. Who cares, you may think. Today, this seems inconsequential but in his time it was a crime to be a homosexual. At the age of 24, Leonardo was criminally charged with sodomy. The charges were eventually dropped but they still had a profound effect on him and his work. With androgynous facial features, the Mona Lisa might have been his statement supporting the concept of gender fluidity. Perhaps, she was his subversive declaration against society’s homophobia.

     The final theory I’ll mention is, in my opinion, the most probable. It became famous simply because it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. What followed was a media sensation with a two year hunt for the portrait. Photos of her swept through newsstands around the world. By the time the painting was recovered, it was an international phenomenon. Many experts on the topic argue that if a different work had been stolen, Mona Lisa would have simply hung on the wall as just another good work by a very famous artist.

     She’s a small, ordinary thing. Five hundred years has dulled her portrait until she looks as though she sits in a dimly lit parlor. So why her? Is she still worth visiting or is it all just hype?

     While I waited in the mob of people, this question of being overrated plagued me. Have I done the same for things in my life? What have I gathered my energy around when maybe it didn’t deserve it? Is there something that I put great value on, solely because others around me were doing that?

     I looked at her eyes, her expression that wasn’t quite a smile, her calmness surrounded by the crowd’s crush of noise and elbows. Her intensity made me question my own decisions for what I treasured in my life. I started running through the recurring themes of my life- health, family, career, social satisfaction, appearance, inner fulfillment. I need to make some changes. Of course I do. No one lives their life perfectly. In truth I’ve felt like I’ve needed to make a shift for awhile now. The deeper questions were, what am I waiting for? Why do I have so much fear wrapped up in some of these decisions? And how do I break through? What will it take for me to let go of some things and chase after others?

     In a moment I fully appreciated the paradox of Mona Lisa. Her ordinariness, her calmness is unnerving. It is as if she asked a question and is awaiting an answer from you. She gives no answers. She simply acts like a reflection as you ask yourself the questions you’ve been avoiding. Her very ordinariness and ambiguous expression- that is what makes her extraordinary. For me, an artwork becomes truly valuable when it triggers a strong, deep reaction from me.

     So does the Mona Lisa deserve so much international attention? Would I have spent so much time contemplating the portrait if it weren’t legendary? I’ll never know. I do know that I’m starting to answer some of the other questions. And I know that for me, it was definitely worth a visit. The museum lived up to its reputation and all three of us left having learned something.


Marla Bender

The Gods and Mona Lisa- Learning at the Louvre
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