Leonardo Da Vinci and Painting: From Aerial Perspective to Sfumato

Leonardo Da Vinci was, of course, both figuratively and literally a Renaissance man who was a certified genius in every field from sculpting to inventing. He is perhaps most famous as a painter, however; certainly nothing else connected with Da Vinci has entered into the public consciousness quite as deeply as his iconic portrait popularly known as the Mona Lisa. Leonardo Da Vinci’s lasting contribution the art of painting was his conception of painting as a science form rather than strictly an art form.

Leonardo Da Vinci approached painting from a mathematical perspective, inventing a system that allowed him to create the illusion of depth and distance. The result is what came to be known as aerial perspective. It is also known as atmospheric perspective because it gives a painting the illusion of distance based on atmospheric qualities. As developed by Da Vinci this technique extends well beyond mere perspective, however, as he uses it to imbue his subjects with a sense of harmony and balance.

For instance, his fresco representation of Christ’s last supper with his disciples becomes far more than just a pictorial retelling of a Biblical event. Leonardo Da Vinci engages in atmospheric perspective to create a sense of spatial illusion that turns the dramatic events that Bible tells us unfolded during the meal into a psychological drama almost as full of action as a passion play. It is hardly by accident that The Last Supper plays such a large role in the novel and film The Da Vinci code. Through the simple of use composition, balance and lighting, Da Vinci creates a large scale mini-drama in which the attention of the viewers can never stay focused on any one particular area for long.

Equally revolutionary was Da Vinci’s creation of the technique of sfumato, which involves creating several layers of color on a painting in order to enhance the perception of depth and form. Da Vinci’s most famous accomplishment as a painter derives much of its mystery as a result of the sfumato application. The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression has been a source of contention among both art experts and laymen for centuries. Is the look on her face one of happiness, sadness or might it even contain just a hint of contempt?

It is difficult to determine for sure, in part because of the technique that Leonardo used to blur the contours of the painting so that the transition is blurred from plane to another within the frame. The Mona Lisa, as a result, stands in stark contrast to The Last Supper in that he has replaced the psychological certainties that exist in the huge fresco-where the viewer has little if any trouble determining the states of mind of any of the figures-with the world of ambiguity that lives inside the tiny figure of La Giaconda. His use of sfumato serves to disguise the subject by blurring the edges and creating an overall fuzzy quality to the painting. The boundaries that are so sharp in The Last Supper merge into each other in the Mona Lisa and take with them any real opportunity for definition. And yet, the very same technique that limits the ability of the viewer to precisely define her also makes her more human. There is a warmth and fleshly quality to the Mona Lisa directly due to the sfumato technique paradoxically makes her both a little more real while at the same time rendering her eternal.

Leonardo Da Vinci carved out a legacy for himself as the ultimate example of what a human being can is able to accomplish. He was by turns a scientist and an artist, both coldly mechanical and sensually attuned with nature. Perhaps nowhere did the oppositional nature of Leonard Da Vinci’s interests come together to achieve a singular perfection than in painting. By approaching the art of painting as a form of science, and applying all his great mathematical genius to the act of applying brush to canvas, Leonardo Da Vinci essentially revolutionized the art of painting. As a leading member of the Renaissance revolution, he was instrumental in turning the focus of art away from strictly realistic portraiture and staid representations of religious figures and events into a vibrant art.

The Da Vinci Coding of the Oedipal Complex into Freudian Intellect

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Perfectionist or procrastinator? You make the call. It seems almost certain that one of those descriptions suits Leonardo Da Vinci better than the other. Following his death, Da Vinci left behind many unfinished paintings and notebooks filled with scribbles of inventions he never got around to building. Leonardo prodigious talents have long been a source of consternation for most of the mere mortals who have followed his path, whether in the pursuit of artistic expression or scientific progress. Leonardo seems to have attempted too many different and varied enterprises to do all of them perfectly and as a result he abandoned a significant number of his undertakings. The notebooks that Da Vinci left behind disclose an exceptionally alert and incisive mind swimming with so many fantastical initiatives that it would have taken several lifetimes to bring just the realistic to fruition. As a result of what he did accomplish and the truly breathtaking scope of what he intended to accomplish, for most of his legacy Leonard Da Vinci has been relegated to that airy sphere of the genius, removed from the rabble of consistent mediocrity. For this reason, Da Vinci’s image has tended to withstand contemporary assaults and interpretations through the ages. Safely removed to a period considered among the heights of human achievement, it has always been easier to simply dismiss any realistic examination into the psyche of his mind by explaining him inadequately away as a genius.

The past century, however, has witnessed a revitalization of the image of Da Vinci that has gotten particularly vital in the past few decades. No longer content to explain away artistic prodigy with the lame excuse of genius, the critical investigation into what has made Da Vinci a titanic figure in history has come down to earth through careful examination of all extant material. Da Vinci’s exertions on an assortment of subject matter have made theirs way across the world and now found in museums on nearly every continent. It has even come to light that not everything that is found in the scribbles of those notebooks originated in the mind of Da Vinci himself; he possessed not just a creative mind, but an interpretive mind as well, applying his prodigious intellect to adapting pre-existing ideas and well as coming up with new ones. This new information and the analysis of what had already been known have supplied an enhanced consideration for the process by which Leonardo benefited from the ideas presented by both his peers and predecessors.

In this way, Leonardo Da Vinci has been lowered a little closer to earth, although he still strides over the rest of us like Gulliver standing over the Lilliputians as they journey through his outstretched legs. Without doing anything to reduce his accomplishments, this new portrait of Da Vinci serves to reveal a figure that is more human and vulnerable. Yet, despite an artistic canon that is renowned for a massive fresco depicting the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, as well as countless portraits of the Madonna and baby Jesus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s contemporary idealization is based upon the conception of the artist as a secular figure. Da Vinci, despite his clear talents as a traditional artist of Biblical images, is foremost grounded in the modern consciousness as a scientist who used his art as a device for peering into the clandestine world that lies hidden just behind the veil of knowledge. The great irony of Da Vinci’s life may be that his fame rests greatly upon two of paintings that are considered the ultimate Renaissance accomplishment of bringing to life the mysteries of the human soul despite the fact that as a person Da Vinci was actually rather disinterested in the affairs of men such as religion and politics.

Clearly, Leonardo Da Vinci ranks as one of history’s greatest intellectuals, despite his self-exile from much of the realm of society. Just as obvious from the sheer breadth of his accomplishments and the truly astounding range of his interests, Da Vinci suffered—or perhaps thrived would be more fitting—from conditions related to obsession. Intellectualization is a psychological term used to describe the endeavor of obsessive people to sublimate uncomfortable emotional disorders through the engagement of extreme intellectual activities. In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud bequeaths the first archetype of what would come to be labeled intellectualization as defense mechanism. Freud describes Da Vinci thusly: “His affects were controlled and subjected to the instinct for research; he did not love and hate, but asked himself about the origins and significance of what he was to love or hate”. The sublimation by Da Vinci of emotional instinct into actions produced from intense concentration of the higher intellect produces a psyche that led to the artist’s withdrawal from human contact into a world of external associations where the exploration of the secrets of nature fulfilled not only the lost effects of establishing relationships but even “acting and creating as well”. This may be the first indication that far from belonging to the traditional realm of Renaissance artists Da Vinci should probably be looked at in terms of being a precursor to the doomed artist made popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s; the artist who withdraws into alienation from human contact and externalizes his deepest passions into the creation of art. It is hardly a secret that many of the so-called tortured artists experienced difficult childhoods or were to forced to deal with deep-seated emotional problems, but until Freud began his examination Da Vinci had escaped being drawn into that discussion.

Freud began his revolutionary reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci after claiming to have unearthed psychoanalytic evidence of a traumatic event that took place during Leonardo’s formative years. Freud maintained that Leonardo, who was the bastard son of a lawyer and an underclass young woman, endured a tortured relationship with his often absent father and so turned to his mother for love and approval. Rather than focusing on the Oedipal aspects of Da Vinci’s childhood as it relates to his close bonding with his mother, however, the primary focus of Freud’s analysis lay in the unstable connection he had with a father who by turns abandoned him and then returned to adopt him. What Freud read into this tenuous affiliation was Da Vinci’s later predilection for leaving projects uncompleted and inventions unperfected.

The underlying psychoanalytic assumption at work here is that Da Vinci’s monumental intellectual pursuits stemmed from the unconscious, which imbues Leonardo with a cultural authenticity and immediacy lacking in many pre-modern artists. The convention view of artists among a large segment of the population is that many if not most are homosexuals and that there may be, therefore, some kind of psychological connection between homosexuality and artistic expression. For most of history, Leonardo’s sexuality was regarded as anything but essential to understanding his work; that is also the case for almost all artists before the Freudian revolution in which all art has come to be seen as representations of unresolved psychosexual conflicts within the artist. Freud brought Da Vinci out of the realm of the asexual artist and into the modern world by casting his psychoanalytical eyes upon a recorded account of his childhood directly attributable to Leonardo himself, of a bird alighting in his cradle, where it “opened my mouth with its tail and struck me many times with its tail against my lips” which Freud interpreted as a synthesis of numerous fantasies. Among these are that the bird kissing is symbolic of receiving passionate kisses from his mother, that the bird’s tail is a phallic symbol, and the act of the bird sticking its tail into his mouth being a gateway to understanding his revulsion.

By introducing the element of sexuality into the interpretation of Da Vinci’s work, the result has been a consistent reappraisal of the meaning of his subjects that range from the recent elevation of Da Vinci into the protector of the rights of the sacred feminine in the novels of Dan Brown to the theory that the woman smiling enigmatically in the Mona Lisa is actually a telling self-portrait. This rather unusual and postmodern concept received much support only b virtue of modern technological innovations that allowed the portrait of the Mona Lisa to be scanned into a computer and scientifically compared to what is an acknowledged self-portrait. The juxtaposition of art with science is probably one that Da Vinci would have particularly enjoyed. During the process of comparison, facial features between the Mona Lisa and the self-portrait were found to be in surprisingly close alignment, projecting a mirror image from Da Vinci onto the more famous painting. Supporters have even claimed that this mirror effect is the reason why the eyes of the Mona Lisa don’t carry the normal effect of following the position of an individual as he moves in the space occupied by the painting.

Self-portraiture has been a mainstay of painting for centuries, but really took off during the egoistic ascendance of the artist as a medium for intensely personal expression rather than just a hired hand by egoistic patrons. If it is true that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait, is coincides in a nearly perfect fashion with Freud’s contention that Da Vinci’s obsessive intellectual pursuit of the external stemmed from narcissism. After all, the psychological disorder was named after Narcissus who fell in love with his mirror image. In codifying the concept of narcissism Freud intended to show that such intellectual pursuits as artistic expression involving the representation of one’s own body would be manifestation of sublimating desires that one wished to deny. In theoretical terms, since Da Vinci was sexually confused and sickened by his own homosexuality, but unable to express desire for a woman, he substituted his own body for a female model in the Mona Lisa. The resulting work which has been historically deemed sexually potent, suggests sublimation of unconscious discomfort with his sexuality.

Sexuality and psychological motivations are the hallmark of 20th century artistic expression. The movement from the realm of creating art for the patron who kept you financially afloat began to give away to the art as a form of intensely personal dynamism in the 19th century before exploding in the 1900’s. What was considered the height of artistic expression during the Renaissance would be considered “selling out” now; painting something only because someone else paid you to. It is difficult if not impossible to attach contemporary artistic evaluations to the artists of the past, but if Freud is correct in his psychological analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci, history may just yet judge the artist of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper to be the very first in a long line of tortured artists who realized their profound emotional pain in celebratory works of art. Whether the Mona Lisa really is just a woman with a great smile or an expression of emotional pain remains to be seen. In the meantime, one thing that can be assured is that Da Vinci will continue to be deconstructed to suit whatever sociological milieu is the presiding one for analyzing art at the time.

Works Cited

Adams, Laurie. Art and Psychoanalysis. New York: IconEditions, 1993.

Cohen, Derek. “1 The Politics of Gay Culture.” The Culture of Queers. New York: Routledge, 2002. 15-30.

Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo Da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood. London: Routledge, 1999.

Wallen, Jeffrey. “Reflection and Self-Reflection: Narcissistic or Aesthetic Criticism?” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34.3 (1992): 301-322

The Real Mona Lisa: It May Not Be Hanging in the Louvre

The DaVinci Code has produced more than its fair share of controversy. From the suggestion that Jesus produced offspring to the mysteries of the Catholic sect Opus Dei, the book and movie contain enough information to polarize entire nations. One of the controversies of the book – yet another controversy not originated by author Dan Brown, but merely extended by him – concerns DaVinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. Is the Mona Lisa a self-portrait of DaVinci? Controversial, yes.

But how’s this for an even greater controversy: The Mona Lisa painting we all know is not the real Mona Lisa.

Which is not to say that it’s a forgery, though since the painting was notoriously stolen from the Louvre in 1911 there is always the slight possibility that the painting hanging there now is a forgery. But there is another Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo DaVinci with claims to being the real Mona Lisa.

DaVinci was well-known for his obsession with La Gioconda, the woman in the painting. Her famous smile may be the result of the comedians that were hired to get her to smile; DaVinci began painting her shortly after the death of her child. DaVinci didn’t just sit down one day and whip out the most famous painting in history. In fact, he spent several years trying to get it just right. Actually, there is some debate as to whether he ever thought he got it just right. According to several biographies, DaVinci handed over an unfinished portrait to her husband, coming back to work on it intermittently. Eventually, the portrait ended up in the possession of King Francis of France. It is commonly accepted that this is the very same portrait now hanging in the Louvre and featured in most ads for The DaVinci Code.

Some, however, are less than convinced.

For one thing, the painting in Paris is certainly not unfinished. For another, Giovanni Lomazzo, an art historian of some renown, refers in a book published 1584 to “the Gioconda and the Mona Lisa.” La Gioconda is the original title of the painting and the reference implies that there was two separate paintings. So if there are two different painting of the woman with the mysterious smile, where is the other one?

The legend goes that it was not the painting that wound up in the hands of the King of France, but rather somehow made its way into the possession of a nobleman in Somerset. Prior to the outbreak of the first World War art connoisseur Hugh Blaker bought it and took it to his studio in Isleworth, where it became known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa. This painting was unfinished as well as being larger than the tiny portrait in the Louvre. In addition, the lady in the painting appeared to be younger than the Mona Lisa.

By all accounts, the Isleworth Mona Lisa is the superior painting; the subject is more beautiful than the woman hanging in that famous French museum. But is it the same woman? Records indicate that DaVinci made his way to the court of St. Francis in 1517 and showed several works to a cardinal. One of these paintings was a portrait of a woman from Florence and was done at the urging of a member of the de Medici family, Giuliano.

Romantic fantasy has led to the consideration of a theory involving Giuliano having been enamored of La Gioconda when she was young commissioned DaVinci to paint her portrait in order to look upon the love he could never have. The fact that the woman in the Mona Lisa was born after Giuliano died puts an unfortunate crimp in that theory.

The best guess as to whose portrait DaVinci painted for that other Mona Lisa is instead merely a mistress of Giuliano rather than a long lost love for whom he was pining. It is assumed that the model was Costanza d’Avalos. This woman was blessed with such an agreeably personality that she was nicknamed “the smiling one.” That phrase translate into Italian as, well, La Gioconda.

So then, which is truly the Mona Lisa? The one made even more popular thanks to Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code; or one that most of us have never and probably will never see?