The Mona Lisa: Art Analysis:

Global Studies
Art & Historical Analysis
Formal Analysis
This assignment requires a detailed description of the "formal" qualities of the art object
(formal as in "related to the form," not a black tie dinner). In other words, you're looking
at the individual design elements, such as composition (arrangement of parts of or in
the work), color, line, texture, scale, proportion, balance, contrast, and rhythm.
Your primary concern in this assignment is to attempt to explain how the artist arranges
and uses these various elements.
Usually you have to go and look at the object for a long time and then write down what
you see. As you will quickly see from the page length of the assignment, your instructor
expects a highly detailed description of the object. You might struggle with this
assignment because it is hard to translate what you see into words -- don't give up, and
take more notes than you might think you need.
Why would your instructor ask you to do this assignment? First, translating something
from a visual language to a textual language is one of the most vital tasks of the art
historian. Most art historians at some point describe fully and accurately their objects of
study in order to communicate their ideas about them. You may already have found this
tendency helpful in reading your textbook or other assigned readings. Second, your
instructors realize that you are not accustomed to scrutinizing objects in this way and
know that you need practice doing so. Instructors who assign formal analyses want you to
look--and look carefully. Think of the object as a series of decisions that an artist made.
Your job is to figure out and describe, explain, and interpret those decisions and why the
artist may have made them.
Ideally, if you were to give your written formal analysis to a friend who had never seen
the object, s/he would be able to describe or draw the object for you or at least pick it out
of a lineup.
In writing a formal analysis, focus on creating a logical order so that your reader doesn't
get lost. Don't ever assume that because your instructor has seen the work, they know
what you are talking about. Here are a couple of options:
summarize the overall appearance, then describe the details of the object
describe the composition and then move on to a description of the materials used
(acrylic, watercolor, plaster)
begin discussing one side of the work and then move across the object to the other
describe things in the order in which they draw your eye around the object,
starting with the first thing you notice and moving to the next
Some instructors want your formal analysis to consist of pure description with little or no
interpretation. In this case, you should describe your object and explain how these formal
elements contribute to the work as a whole. Others will expect you to go further and
comment on the significance of what you have observed. Find out which way your
instructor wants you to write your formal analysis in your particular assignment. Most art
historians include formal analysis at some point in their essays, so there are a lot of
examples to look at in the textbook and other readings, but you will probably have to be
more in-depth than they are.
SAMPLE ANYSIS: the Mona Lisa
Art Analysis:
Describe subject matter - people, objects, symbols, action setting.
What do you see in the artwork?
Describe the woman, where she is seated, how she is dressed, her body posture, her
physical features and facial expression. The Mona Lisa is a portrait. The relaxed, threequarter pose is different from the stiff, profile portraits that were the norm at this time.
What is in the background?
describe the landscape and geographic characteristics - hills, mountains, water and roads.
Speculate on where the setting might be located.
Do you have an idea about the time of this artwork?
Is anything happening in the painting?
Although there is no overt action, that Mona's eyes and her mysterious smile indicate
internal or psychological action.
What colors, lines, shapes, textures do you see? Do they relate to your first impression?
The muted colors, the dark colors of Mona's dress and hair contrasted with the lighter
background landscape. Notice the luminous quality of Mona's face and hands. Focus on
details, such as the repeated lines on the sleeves of her garment, the curving lines of the
roads, the oval shape of her face, the circular lines of trees and the jagged triangles of the
mountains. Perhaps the most important line in the image is the subtle curve of her mouth.
How do you think this artwork was made?
You may consider the particular type of paint used - in this case the new oil medium.
There are no sharp outlines in this work. Leonardo pioneered sfumato or the layering of
thin, translucent glazes. He compared this to "smoke" - suggesting that the forms seems
to melt and blend together without definite edges.
Formal Analysis: How is the work organized?
What is the most important part of the painting? What is the focal point? Why do
you think so?
The woman's hands and face stand out because they are light and luminous in contrast to
her dark clothing and hair. The composition is triangular. Another important aspect of the
work is the use of perspective, with all lines leading to a single vanishing point behind
Mona Lisa's head. The horizon line is repeated in the railing behind the figure. The
repetition of light draws the viewer's eye around the painting, but always back to the face
and hands.
Formal Characterization: the overall impression or expressiveness (the mood of
How would you describe the mood or feeling of this painting? Why do you think so?
The work can be depicted as intriguing, mysterious, haunting, sad, tentative, content or a
range of other descriptions. The important thing here is to state what you see that
provides evidence for their opinion. For example, the subtle colors and tones may support
a sad or pensive characterization.
Interpretation: what is the meaning?
What is the artwork about? What is the artist trying to communicate?
Ask students to consider everything they have discussed from the visual clues in the work
to offer an interpretation. For example, students may focus on the famous smile.
Why is she smiling?
Possible responses: I think she's smiling because she has a secret; I think she's smiling
because she's happy; I think she's smiling because she thinks she's better than everyone.
These are all projections of meaning based on visual qualities.
Expand these assumptions by referring to other qualities in the artwork - her placement
and posture, the background, her clothing. For example, if you think Mona Lisa is
arrogant you can point to the fact that she sits proudly, clothed in a luxurious fabric and is
sitting in front of a beautiful landscape that she could own. Others may think that her
facial expression- the direction of her eyes and the smile, are what creates the effect of
intrigue and mystery.
The Mona Lisa is 16th century oil painting created by the renowned Leonardo da Vinci.
The work of art depicts an enigmatic woman gazing at the viewer, and it is said that if
you move across the room while looking into her eyes, they’ll follow you. It is definitely
one of the most popular paintings worldwide and has been the center of many artistic,
religious, and theoretical debates. The French government currently owns the Mona Lisa
and it is featured at the Musee du Louvre in Paris. The painting can also be referred to as
La Gioconda or La Joconde.
The name of the painting stems from the name of the woman in the portrait, Lisa
Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy businessman in Florence, Italy named Francesco del
Giocondo. Mona means ‘my lady’ or ‘madam’ in modern Italian, so the title is simply
Madam Lisa. Art historians agree that Leonardo da Vinci likely began painting the Mona
Lisa in 1503, and completed it within 4 years. In 1516 the King of France, King Francois,
bought the painting and it is thought that after Leonardo’s death the painting was cut
down. Some speculators think that the original had columns on both sides of the lady,
whereas other art critics believe that the painting was never cut down in size. It has been
suggested that there were 2 versions of the Mona Lisa painting, but many historians reject
the second version. The duplicate copy can be found at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
After the French revolution the painting was moved to the Louvre, and Napoleon had it
placed in his bedroom for a short time before it was returned to the Louvre. The
popularity of the Mona Lisa increased in the mid 19th century because of the Symbolist
movement. The painting was thought to encompass a sort of feminine mystique.
In 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The art thief hid in a broom closet
until the museum closed, stole the painting, hid it under his jacket and walked out the
front door. Eduardo de Valfierno was the mastermind behind the theft and has planned to
make copies of the original and sell them as the real thing. Eventually, in 1913, he was
caught when trying to sell the original to a Florence art dealer. The Mona Lisa is most
famous for her facial expression, her enigmatic smile and da Vinci’s mastering of tone
and color in the painting. There is much mythology and interpretations relating to the
painting that mystify the world. Many art critics and art history buffs suggest that the
Mona Lisa is actually a portrait of da Vinci himself in feminine form. In addition, most
viewers see the meaning behind Mona Lisa’s smile very differently.
Additional info on Mona Lisa
According to Louvre Curator Jean-Pierre Cuzin, "The entire history of portraiture afterwards
depends on the Mona Lisa. If you look at all the other portraits – not only of the Italian
Renaissance, but also of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries – if you look at Picasso, at
everyone you want to name, all of them were inspired by this painting. Thus it is sort of the root,
almost, of occidental portrait painting."
In a break with the Florentine tradition of outlining the
painted image, Leonardo perfected the technique
known as sfumato, which translated literally from
Italian means "vanished or evaporated." Creating
imperceptible transitions between light and shade, and
sometimes between colors, he blended everything
"without borders, in the manner of smoke," his brush
strokes so subtle as to be invisible to the naked eye.
Leonardo was fascinated by the way light falls on
curved surfaces. The gauzy veil, Mona Lisa's hair, the
luminescence of her skin – all are created with layers of
transparent color, each only a few molecules thick,
making the lady's face appear to glow, and giving the
painting an ethereal, almost magical quality.
"Today's art critics call attention to the painting's mystery and harmony," says Cuzin. "But the
first art historians to describe it emphasized its striking realism, pointing out 'the lips that smile'
and 'the eyes that shine.'" Giorgio
Vasari, for example, wrote in his early biography of da Vinci,
Lives of the Painters: "As art may imitate nature, she does not
appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood. On looking
closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses
were beating."
The realism of his painting is a result of Leonardo's diverse scientific observations. From the
study of human anatomy he developed a mathematical system for determining size in space,
perspective that is incorporated in the way Mona Lisa's torso, head and eyes are each turned a
little more toward the viewer. Da Vinci also observed differences between the subject and
objects in the background, and used aerial perspective to create the illusion of depth: the farther
something is in the distance, the smaller the scale, the more muted the colors and the less
detailed the outlines.
"Leonardo has studied the sky, the elements, the
atmosphere, and the light. He takes the approach of a
scientist, but translates it into the painting with superb
delicacy and finesse. For him the painting doesn't
count. What counts is the knowledge," observes Cuzin.
"In the same painting we move from soft places like the
clouds to areas of extreme intricacy and fine detail. For
example, around the neckline of the lady's dress we
have delicate interlacing embroidery. The contrast of
these different areas creates a cohesion that is very rare
in painting." All this we now take for granted. The
Mona Lisa looks so natural, and so familiar, that we forget how innovative the painting was at
the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Even the use of landscape as background was a departure from tradition; Leonardo saw creative
and fictional possibilities in it. "The background may be a representation of the universe, with
mountains, plains and rivers. Or possibly it is both reality and the world of dream. One could
suppose that the landscape doesn't exist, that it is the young woman's own dream world." (Cuzin)
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