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Unveiling Perspectives: Deconstructing the Mona Lisa through a Feminist Lens

Shruthi Satish
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The Mona Lisa (or La Gioconda) is a Renaissance portrait painting worth $2.67 Billion by the renowned Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci is often dubbed as the “most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”.[1] It features Lisa del Giocondo, an Italian  noblewoman from Florence.

This piece of art has become the paramount Pop- icon and can be seen on everything from postcards and t-shirts to bottled water and keychains. Even today, it is revered like visiting royalty at her home at the Musee du Louvre in Paris. While there are so many remarkable aspects of this painting and its popularity, let us deconstruct the same from a feminist lens.

Starting with the name itself, ‘Mona’ is a contraction for the Italian word “Madonna” meaning “my lady”. A loanword to the English language it is defined as “an idealized virtuous and beautiful woman” as per the Oxford Dictionary of English. In Catholic literature, it was also adopted as one of the titles for Mother Mary making the term a symbol of purity. On the flip side, the term also means “prostitute” as evident from the works of English authors like Thomas Dekker in the 1600s. Some have interpreted the term to mean “vulgarity” in its broadest sense while others have used the term to mean all sorts of things about women and their sexuality including “virgin”. Though Da Vinci may not have thought this far ahead, it is interesting to note that the etymology of the name he chose continues to baffle linguists and aestheticians, thus reaffirming the fact that the identity of a woman is ever-changing in the context it is viewed in.

Da Vinci is said to have been commissioned for the painting in celebration of the sitter’s second son’s birth. Lisa, the sitter, belonged to the middle-class lifestyle leading a comfortable life with her husband and five children. She is a commoner like most of her admirers and a representation of the femme fatale. She is depicted as a complex human being whose intellectual and emotional capacity transcends traditional thought. Her image bears much resemblance to that of the Mother of God, who was then believed to be the ideal to which every honorable woman must aspire. [2]

picture 1

Her smile is a match to the feminine charm, a reflection of the modest female’s beauty and virtue. It is regarded that her reason for smiling may be attributed to her advantageous marriage with a caring spouse who also elevated her financial status. Yet, we can only see her smile when we are not looking directly at her (foveal view) because of how the human eye processes visual information. Her enigmatic smile changes depending on which part of the eyes sees it first. She is radiant and serious at the same time much like an actual human. As Varvel, an Italian Scholar said “Mona Lisa was a feminist, and her subtle smile may be a statement about women’s rights.[3]

picture 2

Her piercing gaze follows you around irrespective of where you are standing, a credit to Da Vinci’s mastery of shadows and lighting. It has been so acclaimed that the phenomenon has been termed the “Mona Lisa effect”. It can be interpreted as Lisa being given the sexual power to infatuate her spectators thereby rejecting the notion of women being submissive. [4] It challenged the hegemonic gender roles steering away from conformity and conservatism of that era.

However, the lack of eyebrows is a dilemma of its own. It could be a deliberate choice to add more mystery to the painting and bring the focus to her smile and eyes or it could be a reflection of the fashion trends to portray her as youthful. But Da Vinci did not rely on bejeweled dresses, flashy jewelry, intricate hairdos, or the golden hair, pale skin, and blue eyes standard of beauty. He only wanted to show Lisa’s character and mind not her social status. [5]

picture 3

Her right-hand rests upon the left wrist, a symbol of modesty. She sits on a “pozzetto” armchair upright but the fold on the arms of her robe suggests a hint of the oppression faced by women. She wears a dark dress and flowy veil with her brunette hair cascading naturally. This is not to symbolize her modesty but because dark colors were considered en vogue, likely to mean that she chose her attire away from the confines of societal standards.

Ultimately the numerous interpretations like that of Walter Pater*[6]* and Michael Field among others, immortalize the Mona Lisa’s fame through their writings questioning the Victorian gender assumption by how they read the painting. The sepia-toned lady continues to be an influential authority, especially to the Western world, and remains alive through the spirits of her spectators even after 500 long years!

[1] 530771.html

[2] Zöllner, Frank (2000). Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452–1519. ISBN 978-3-8228-5979-7.

[3]  Varvel, The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa, Brown Books Publishing Group



[6] Walter H. Pater, Studies in the history of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan, 1973)

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