Technical reasons why Mona Lisa is still here
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a scientist and an inventor. In his mind, his remarkable abilities to perfect the technique of painting took a back seat in favor of many other interests he devoted most of his time to. Therefore, very few of his artworks exist today, and the artist’s mindset about art remains as elusive as his paintings. Tall, handsome, and charming Leonardo was great at finding patrons for his military, scientific, theatre and art projects, projects that had never ended in his creative mind, and most he had never finished.
As an inventor, he also loved to experiment with his art materials, using new, untested methods and processes that led to a number of disasters. His greatest surviving achievement, the “Last Supper” mural painted inside a church in Milan began to chip off the wall during his lifetime. He abandoned the traditional fresco technique and painted the picture on a dry wall instead of a wet plaster, and experimented with oil and tempera and other materials that Leonardo combined in a new, untested method, flaking off his deliberate, masterful composition to dust almost as soon as he painted it. The mural has endured a number of renovations since then, but only restored and computer-generated models can show us his genius: perfectly sculptured figures in triangular sub-compositions.
It’s not a surprise that da Vinci experimented with “Mona Lisa” (started in 1503) as well. Obviously, this artwork had held a very special place in Leonardo’s heart since it had never left his hands until his death. Da Vinci’s drawing of the figure was absolutely perfect, and his creation of a soft landscape behind her, (the sfumato technique) was his signature invention. I’m not going to talk about the mystery of the sitter, the beauty of this composition, or the artist’s preoccupation with the painting. There is numerous literature written about these topics. Rather I’d like to illustrate the importance of art materials used in the process of painting.
The artist played with the technical aspects of the painting itself that deteriorated its surface at a much faster pace than it normally would. The exposure to light and humidity darkened and discolored the pigments. Fine details in the face got lost as dyes mixed with the paint faded. Her brightly colored attire changed to shades of browns and black that we see today. Further applied varnishes during the early restorations darkened the painting even more, and today it has a rather colorless appearance of yellowed browns.
Italian painter, Giorgio Vasari was the first to write a comprehensive book about famous artists preceding his generation that he titled “lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors, and architects.” In his notes he reviewed the “Mona Lisa” as follows:
“The eyes had that luster and watery sheen always seen in life … the nostrils, rosy and tender, seemed to be alive … The opening of the mouth seemed to be not colored but living flesh.”
These are the words that describe the mastery of the artist that we sort of see here, only if we could take the sunglasses off to see the real colors.
So what happened to the painting? Because the artist painted on a poplar panel (soft, non-durable and susceptible to insect attack wood) that was removed from its original frame, the surface couldn’t withstand the changes in humidity, it warped and cracked. In the 18th century the braces were added in the back of the painting to stabilize the crack, and later the added frame and cross braces helped to stop the continuous warping of the panel. Over the years the panel has actually shrunk!
Today you can see the painting in the Louvre that’s kept in a bulletproof glass case. It’s rather small (21×30”) and it’s hard to enjoy the beauty of it, jumping over the heads of so many tourists surrounding it with the selfie sticks. To preserve the priceless artwork, this painting is kept in a climate-controlled room with a 50% (+\-10%) humidity and 18-21C (68-70F) temperature. To compensate for fluctuations in relative humidity, the case is supplemented with a bed of silica gel treated to provide 55% relative humidity (Wikipedia)
These are computer-generated models of the famous painting showing us true colors it probably had when Leonardo had just painted it. In these models we can see the pinks and the blues that Vasari mentioned and that have faded over the centuries.
Source for the images: World Mysteries at http://blog.world-mysteries.com/science/digital-restoration-of-leonardo-da-vincis-mona-lisa/
Other sources: Art history lessons | the Natural Pigments at http://www.naturalpigments.com/blog | Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mona_Lisa
Mona Lisa in the Louvre
If you’re interested to learn more, the Louvre museum website is a great source. Here you can see Mona Lisa up-close and personal going through the digitized images completed by the Louvre museum:
Close ups: http://focus.louvre.fr/en/mona-lisa/
Scientific tests: http://focus.louvre.fr/en/mona-lisa/compare/scientific-tests
If you paint
Here you’ll find some good information relevant to the process of painting that affects conservation. The longevity of your artwork greatly depends on the environment you place it in. The best conditions you can set in your home or office include constant room temperature and low humidity levels. Don’t expose your artwork to the extreme sunlight, heat, oxidation, or humidity (water) – these are the main causes for the artwork’s deterioration. Don’t wash the surface with water.
1. Don’t paint on glossy surfaces.
2. Don’t use a lot of medium, it dilutes and weakens the paint. Use just a little bit of oil to help the paint flow.
3. Paint with lead white, not titanium white, or worse flake white. Lead white holds up everything together like a glue and minimizes cracking.
4. If you don’t paint large, stick to painting on professional panels, the surface of which doesn’t fluctuate as much as the canvas does.
5. Have strong stretcher bars and frames that keep the painted surface flat and unchanged.
6. Use linseed oil to form the most durable oil paint film, although it yellows more than the walnut oil. (The walnut oil is your second best option. It yellows less but dries much slower).
7. Always paint on a previously dried layer!
If you’d like to receive monthly notes about my art, please click below to sign up.
Hope you enjoyed the read!