What Makes a Work of Art Great?


Here’s our point: If you learn to look at this one painting with a fresh set of eyes, and an open mind, you can change the way you look at just about everything.


Is the Mona Lisa a Great Painting?


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Leonardo da Vinci's The Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci’s
Mona Lisa


If you ask most people if the Mona Lisa is a great painting they would instinctively say “Of course”. It is the most famous painting in the world. It has been called “”the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.”


Walter Isaacson, Leonardo’s most recent biographer, has called it “Leonardo’s profound meditation on what it means to be human……a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion, made memorable through the mysteries of a hinted smile, and to connect our nature to that of our universe” and “one of humankind’s unsurpassed creations.”


The often quoted early biographer of artists, Vasari, said the Mona Lisa “was painted in a way to make every brave artist tremble and lose heart.”  The famous British art historian Kenneth Clark has said ““The science, the pictorial skill, the obsession with nature, the psychological insight are all there, and so perfectly balanced that at first we are hardly aware of them.” Not enough? As Walter Pater wrote in 1893, “Hers is the head upon which all the ends of the world are come . . . a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences.”  Heady stuff.


So from the time it was painted until now there seems to be universal agreement among the learned critics that the Mona Lisa is a great painting, among the greatest works of all time.


But is it? And, if not, why would so many smart people say such things?


We are not going to argue that the Mona Lisa is a terrible or ugly painting; we find it nice enough, and interesting. But if it were not introduced to people as a work of great importance, would they recognize it as such? We think not. It is a nice painting, of no particular intrinsic importance, that became well-known for reasons outlined below, then became famous simply for being very famous.There is a universal lesson to be learned from the Mona Lisa, it’s just not the lesson that the critics teach. The lesson is that works of art become famous and lauded for all sorts of reasons, and often those reasons have nothing to do with the intrinsic merit of the work.


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Leonardo da Vinci, A self-portrait
Leonardo da Vinci,
A self-portrait



Does it Matter that Leonardo as not a Good Man?


As we explain in more detail below, it helps that the Mona Lisa had a very famous creator; Leonardo da Vinci, a man famous in his own time and even more highly regarded in our time. Da Vinci was a great thinker, and a man of absolutely amazing talents; a genius by any standard.


But he certainly wasn’t a good man. Does that matter? What effect does, or should, the character of the artist have on the appreciation of his art?


Da Vinci was in all likelihood a pedofile; he was certainly gay. Here is what Isaacson says about da Vinci’s lifelong companion Salai.
Salai arrived on July 22, 1490, when Leonardo was thirty-eight. “Giacomo came to live with me” is the way he recorded the event in his notebook. Gian Giacomo Caprotti was then ten years old, the son of an impoverished peasant from the nearby village of Oreno. Leonardo would soon be referring to him, for good reason, as Salai, or “Little Devil.” Soft and languid, with angelic curls and a devilish little smile, he would feature in dozens of Leonardo’s drawings and notebook sketches, and for most of the rest of Leonardo’s life, Salai would be his companion. He was the one, as noted earlier, described by Vasari as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair in which Leonardo greatly delighted.” It was not unusual for a servant boy to go to work at age ten, but Salai was something more. probably at some point he became a lover.
Leonardo, who at one point was arrested for sodomy, was quite open about his relationship with Salai and others. While in Milan in 1507, when Leonardo was 55, he met a fourteen-year-old named Francesco Melzi.  Francesco was an aspiring artist, pretty in the slightly soft way of Salai. Vasari described Melzi as “a very beautiful boy and much loved by Leonardo.” 


That Leonardo almost certainly had homosexual sex with young boys may not affect the value of the Mona Lisa; it certainly does not seem to affect history’s appraisal of Leonardo’s genius. But still.


Does the sexuality of an artist affect his or her work? Absolutely. Not only was Leonardo gay, but he was repulsed by the whole idea of heterosexual sex. In his words:  “The sexual act of coitus and the body parts employed for it are so repulsive that, if it were not for the beauty of the faces and the adornment of the actors and the pent up impulse, nature would lose the human species.”  Leonardo was one of the great drawing masters of all time and a pioneer in anatomy. But “In his series of anatomical drawings, he drew a woman’s anatomy, as a crude and flawed depiction of female genitalia, looking like a forbidding and dark cave.”


The Mona Lisa is praised as a peerless examination of the inner life of a married woman with five children. But in at least one part of that woman’s inner life, her sexuality, da Vinci could not have much insight. He apparently never had sex with a woman, which is not surprising given how repulsive the act seemed to him. Ross King, in a book about the Last Supper, da Vinci’s second most famous painting, says that da Vinci was skilled at blurring the difference between the sexes, or, in today’s parlance, “gender fluidity”. And Isaacson says “Then as now, Leonardo’s boy angels are feminine to the point of being androgynous; it is true of the angel in his early Annunciation and also of the one in Virgin of the Rocks.” And this sort of blurring is very much a function of his sexuality.


Da Vinci is not alone in having his sexuality impact his art. His equally talented contemporary and rival, Michelangelo, was commissioned by the city of Florence to create a painting glorifying a military victory over Pisa in the Battle of Cascina in 1364. For his subject, Michelangelo chose not a battle scene, but men bathing nude in the Arno River, because it gave him yet another opportunity to indulge his interest in the male body, despite the fact that it was hardly the sort of climatic battlefield success he had been hired to glorify.


So Leonardo was gay, probably had sex with boys, and was repulsed by the heterosexual act. The Mona Lisa is praised as a painting with universal lessons about mankind, but the basic act of heterosexual procreation – the most fundamental and universal – and critical – of mans’ activities, was utterly foreign to him.


Do you have to be Unreliable to be a Genius?


Leonardo was notoriously unreliable. He regularly accepted commissions, and payment for commissions, which he failed to deliver, including the Mona Lisa.  He was commissioned to do the painting by Mona Lisa’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo, but Leonardo kept the painting until the end of his life as he continued to tinker with it, and it was never delivered to the person who hired him to do it. In his own time he was famous for starting works and never finishing them. In fact, there is no evidence that he ever considered the Mona Lisa finished.  A typical complaint came from the government of Florence: “Leonardo has not behaved as he should have done towards the Republic, because he has taken a large sum of money and only made a small beginning on the great work he was commissioned to carry out”. This happened many, many times in Leonardo’s career.


In modern life we tend to look down on people who start endless projects and never finish them, but for some reason this is considered part of da Vinci’s charm. As Isaacson says  “in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time.” In fact, da Vinci failed to deliver far more often than he delivered. In many cases critics seem to view the fact that Da Vinci went back and tinkered around with his paintings over the years as to a sign that they were masterworks, but we find such logic faulty. We’ve revised this essay over the years, but that, alas, doesn’t make it a work of genius.


Is it Okay to Help a Bloody Tyrant Gain Power?


The most important flaw in da Vinci’s character was not his sexuality or his rampant unreliability. The most important flaw, that should not be forgiven, was that he was willing to sell his services to anyone, including one of history most ruthless tyrants, Cesare Borgia. For 8 months da Vinci traveled with Borgia’s armies, and did his bidding. It’s important to understand that Da Vinci was not an artist serving a tyrant, he was actively involved in Borgia’s military campaigns, preparing maps for Borgia’s use. Leonardo in fact thought of himself every bit as much as a defense contractor, creating armaments of war for various rulers, as he did an artist. As Issacson says “The brutality of war didn’t repulse him as much as it seemed to mesmerize him”.


So Leonardo was an unreliable gay pedophile who worked for one of history’s most brutal tyrants. All that actually helped, not hindered, the fame of his work and of the Mona Lisa.


Critics Love Bad Men


I would argue that, rather than hurt his reputation, da Vinci’s character flaws are actually part of the reason the Mona Lisa is so famous, because academics and critics find this sort of person much more fascinating than a good reliable craftsman. There is an old saying in the art world “First of all be a good craftsman. It won’t prevent you from being a genius.” But critics and academics, who make the reputations of artists, are far more attracted to those who live colorful lives than reliable craftsmen.


If you doubt this, compare the amount of scholarly interest between two of the founding fathers of the United States. George Washington was a paragon of respectability, and his personal honor and integrity made him the one indispensable figure in the founding of the United States. But writers and academics find Thomas Jefferson infinitely more interesting than Washington. Jefferson’s mistress was a black slave who fathered a number of his children.  Jefferson, like da Vinci, wasn’t too good at finishing anything. He kept building his famous house at Monticello, then pulling parts down, then rebuilding. Like that other masterwork the Mona Lisa, Monticello was the subject of life long tinkering. Like da Vinci, Jefferson was a brilliant man and deep thinker. Jefferson and da Vinci were both hypocrites; Jefferson fled when British troops approached Charlottesville and he never served in the army, but his writings glorify bloodshed, especially in the case of the French Revolution. Da Vinci was a vegetarian who apparently didn’t want to hurt a living thing, yet he willingly sold his services to help the most brutal and bloody tyrant of his time.


Crimes add Drama


The provenance of the painting; who owned it over time, has nothing to do with the inherent worth of the work, although provenance is very useful in trying to certify authenticity.  The Mona Lisa was owned by a series of famous men: French king Francois bought the painting and put it at The Palace of Fontainebleau; Louis the 14th moved it to Versailles. Napoleon kept it briefly in his bedroom. This is not to say that the painting was regarded as particularly outstanding; French kings owned hundreds of paintings, and thousands of things which might be considered works of art. A nice but perhaps unfinished painting of an unknown woman created by a part time painter – hardly the foundation for a legendary work of art, even if it could be found among the vast collections of royal art. But it’s a start on the long road to fame.


The story gets more interesting, because crime adds drama. The painting was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was accused of  the theft and jailed; he tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was brought in for questioning. In fact, Louvre employee and Italian nationalist Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen the Mona Lisa by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. He kept it in his apartment for two years until he was finally caught when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery.


More crime and drama: In 1956 a vandal threw acid at the Mona Lisa; later that same year a young Bolivian man threw a rock at it. In both cases the damage was minor, but the fame, or infamy, of the painting grew. In 1974 a woman upset by the Tokyo National Museum’s policy for the disabled sprayed red paint at the Mona Lisa while it was on display there. In 2009 a Russian woman, upset over being denied French citizenship, threw a mug at the painting. The painting is famous largely because it has managed to attract an international cast of nut cases; Italian, Bolivian, Japanese, Russian – who have unsuccessfully tried to damage the painting, attacks motivated not by the painting itself but by the painting as a symbol of French art; although it was not created in France or by a Frenchman.


Mystery adds more Drama


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.  Critics and academics love this sort of mystery, as it creates a cottage industry for books and articles. Who was Shakespeare, really? Did Jefferson father black children? Who actually wrote which of the Federalist essays?  Ongoing debates, even when they don’t have much substance, keep a work of art in the news and add to its fame.


The Mona Lisa that Leonardo Painted is not the Mona Lisa you See


Some of the critics who made such glowing and detailed praise of the Mona Lisa, such as Vasari, may not even have ever seen the original painting. Vasari lavished commentary on the detail of Mona Lisa’s eyebrows:  “The eyebrows, because he has shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, growing thickly in one place and lightly in another and curving according to the pores of the skin, could not be more natural.” But in fact the woman portrayed in the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows, at least in the modern version. Was Vasari just making things up, or has the painting changed that much over the last 5 centuries?


A fundamental problem with the praise lavished upon it is that the painting that people line up in the Louvre to see is not the painting that Leonardo da Vinci painted. The painting has changed many times over the 500 plus years since it was started. First of all, da Vinci carried it around with him and from time to time, over the years, tinkered around with it, adding subtle touches. So the painting changed during his own life time. As discussed above, it was stolen and vandalized numerous times. Any time art is moved it is subject to damage, and of course, and it has been moved many times, as well as being stored during World War Two.


There have been many restoration attempts over the years, and perhaps some in earlier years that are not even known. The first recorded restoration attempt was in in 1809, when the painting was in the Musee Napoleon, and involved cleaning with spirits, touch up of color, and revarnishing. More retouches were made in 1906, 1913, 1952, 1956, 1977, and 1985, though some of these were minor in nature. Retouches have been necessary because of warping in the frame as a result of humidity, insect infestation, and vandalism described above. The restoration efforts have not been nearly as controversial as those on Leonardo’s other masterpiece, the Last Supper, which has, without question, dramatically changed over time. Even if the Mona Lisa has not been fundamentally damaged by movement, storage, vandalism, or bad restoration efforts, it’s still over 500 years old, and is subject to the effects of having been exposed to the environment for a very long period of time. It’s simply impossible to know what the painting really looked like at the time of da Vinci’s death. The version you see today is probably much darker than the way it looked when he was painting it, just due to the environmental effects of time.


But the most important problem may not be that the painting has changed, but that the extent of its fame changes the way people see it. Issacson calls it “the Leonardo Effect”. His skill of observation was so acute that even an obscure anomaly in his paintings, such as an uneven dilation of pupils, causes us to wrestle, perhaps too much, with what he might have noticed and thought.” It might be more generally called the “Obsession Through Fame Effect”.  For any work of art; whether it be in the form of music, art, literature or movies, the way in which the viewer is drawn into the work is an integral part of the value of the art. As David Hume said “Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them.” But that can be taken too far, to the point that so many people obsess for so long over a simple work of art that they start to see things that are far more ideas in their own minds than based in any way on the work of art. And this is very much the case with the Mona Lisa. If you really want to believe that something “connects our nature to that of our universe” you can see that in the Mona Lisa, in a piece of modern abstract art, or, just about anything.

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