I'm going to take some time away from editing my Leonardo da Vinci video to write a non-political Sunday post about...Leonardo da Vinci. Call it a busman's holiday.
A few posts down, I asked if any reader knows why the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows or eyelashes. Some researchers have claimed that Italian women of that period plucked their eyebrows clean off, but that assertion is questionable. Besides, those ladies of yesteryear sure as hell didn't pluck their eyelashes
off as well.
The real answer is dead simple. Vasari says that Leonardo "lingered over the painting for four years" and ultimately left it unfinished. Martin Kemp, probably the foremost Leonardo scholar of our time, admitted on his blog
that "The painting may not even be quite finished now." (Kemp tried his hand at general-interest blogging, and did quite well. I hope he gets back to it.)
And that's it. In my view, the eyebrows aren't there because the painting isn't done.
Why did the artist leave those details for the very end? Try this thought experiment: Suppose you intend to paint a picture -- a traditional oil painting -- of a leaf-less tree in winter against grey, roiling clouds. Which do you paint first: The clouds or the tree?
The clouds, obviously.
(If the reason for that sequence isn't obvious to you, then maybe you shouldn't think about art at all, due to your utter lack of visual imagination.)
Same thing with eyebrows and eyelashes. The face has to be done -- as in done done, locked in place forever -- before you add those details. Once you paint those details, you can no longer "re-mold" the basic structures of the face.
(Unless you're a modern Photoshop artist, working in layers. I bet Leonardo would have loved Photoshop.)
Leonardo spent years molding that face, applying glaze after glaze. I suspect that he got lost in his work, searching for something that he could never verbalize. Anyone who has ever painted a portrait -- even a humble and amateurish portrait -- knows about that search.
Likewise, you now can guess why the recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi (a.k.a., the "Cook" version, about which my ladyfriend and I will soon have much to say) doesn't have a beard -- hell, it doesn't even have a well-defined jaw. Why? Because the face was never finished. Simple as that.
Once again: The facial hairs go on after the underlying face is "locked." (And if your name is Leonardo da Vinci, the locking process can take, like, forever.) Why did Leonardo leave the jaw so vague? Anyone who has actually worked in oil paints knows that if you want to achieve extremely thin lines -- as thin as a single strand of hair -- you cannot apply thick, opaque paint. You need to use thinned, transparent paint. Thus, you don't want to lay transparent beard hairs over a solidly-defined jawline, because that hard edge will show through the beard, and the result will look really weird. But you do want a darker skin tone beneath those beard hairs. Hair casts a shadow.
Now let's examine another oft-heard claim about the Mona Lisa. Is the painting a self-portrait? A couple of years ago, this nonsensical assertion even led to an attempt to dig up Leonardo's remains. There's an easier way to answer this question: Take art lessons.
Having seen my ladyfriend through the process of getting her degree in Art History, I can tell you a secret: Most universities do not require Art History students to take any classes in drawing or painting. That's a pity. You can't easily understand why artists do what they do unless you've actually held a pencil, pen or brush in your hand. Whether you possess talent doesn't matter. You can't get a feel for the process until you pick up that damned brush.
Many a moon ago -- more moons than I care to think -- I took a class in drawing portraits. The students were asked to draw each other, a strategy which saved the cost of hiring a model. On one occasion, the poor fellow tasked with trying to capture my hideous mug spent about twenty minutes on the job, then turned the pad around to show me the result. At that moment, the professor just happened to be standing right over my shoulder. We both tried, and failed, to suppress our giggles.
The other student had painted a very convincing portrait -- of himself. Wearing my shirt.
Self-portraiture seems to be our default mode. God knows why. It's in our DNA.
If you're a professional artist, you have learned to paint whatever is in front of you. Leonardo certainly knew how to do that.
But in the case of the Mona Lisa, the subject (almost certainly Lisa del Giocondo) was not in front of him.
Yes, she had sat for him at one time, for a while. But Vasari tells us that Leonardo brought the painting home and fussed away at it for four years. Maybe longer. No sitter will sit still for four years. And we can be pretty sure that Lisa did not live with Leo.
It is fair to presume that, as time passed, memory of the actual woman became inexact. Once those memories started to fade, the portrait became unconsciously self-referential. No artist intends such a development. It just happens.
(I've long felt that Rosetti's gorgeous women bear an indefinable resemblance to his own early self-portrait. But I don't think that this factor explains all of those huge necks that he tended to bestow on his ladies!)
So we shouldn't be surprised by those who aver that the Mona Lisa bears a vague, hazy resemblance to Leonardo's putative self-portrait. (I use the word "putative" because we can't be sure that the drawing often labeled a self-portrait really is a self-portrait. Although that's the way to bet.)
Here's another thing I learned in that long-ago class in portraiture: Quite often, the more you work on a drawing, the more the face ages.
The reason should be obvious. Most artists seek to emphasize the details that convey character. Those details include things like crow's feet, bags under eyes, tear troughs, frown lines, marionette lines, nasolabial folds and all that other messy stuff that most people my age don't like to think about and certainly don't want to see captured forever in oils. If you're a professional portraitist, and if you care about flattering your clients, you must master the trick of "massaging" those features while keeping them visible. Sometimes just barely visible -- there, but not there.
When Lisa first sat for Leo in 1503, she was 24 years old. If the lady in the Louvre looks older -- well, now you know why.
Quite a few web pages are filled with mystical codswallop about Leonardo da Vinci. In my opinion, the best way to get past the hooey is to take a few classes in traditional drawing and painting. If you can't do that, then simply sit down and think logically about the process of making a picture.
A couple of final points:
1. A number of modern-day artists have tried their hands at painting copies of works by Leonardo; you can find examples on the web. I wish these people would learn a thing or two about Renaissance practices. Most contemporary artists can't shake the appalling habit of applying thick, opaque colors to the surface. Wrong. That's how you paint a house.
The secret is glazing, glazing, glazing -- transparent glazes applied in ultra-thin layers. And when I say "thin," I'm talking molecules. As you might expect, those few artist who attempt to work "old school" love to engage in endless debates about the exact processes employed by the masters who lived five centuries ago. (Here's an example of such a debate. Even I get dizzy reading that stuff.)
2. Some of you may want me to weigh in on the topic of the various copies of the Mona Lisa floating about. We even have a Mona Lisa here in godforsaken Baltimore. The Hermitage has or had an interesting one, but I can now find no trace of it on the net.
When it comes to the Isleworth copy (which has received a fair amount of recent news coverage), your best guide is, of course, Martin Kemp, who offers a scathing review. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn't weighed in on the recently-cleaned Prado version. Obviously, I haven't seen it "in the paint" and can judge only from reproduction. The visible brushwork in the wall seems wrong, and the sleeves simply don't have the magic. But regardless of who did the job, it's a damned fine painting. Note that this Mona Lisa has delicate eyebrows and eyelashes. The Prado and the Isleworth may indicate that other artists had access to Leonardo's cartoon, or preparatory drawing.