MONA LISA: The Picture and the Myth by Roy McMullen

MONA LISA: The Picture and the Myth

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An exemplary portrait of a portrait (or was it a portrait?) of the Mona Lisa, in which McMullen achieves just the right mix of aesthetic criticism and scholarly speculation, fact and gossip, sobriety and frivolity. In the brief biography of Leonardo, McMullen emphasizes that the artist was a romantic court painter, a scientific researcher, and somewhat of an arrogant ""aristocratic aesthete"" living in a time of cultural and political transition. As to the identity of the lady, the question is still open. McMullen reviews the many early and subsequent theories but leans to the possibility that the Mona Lisa was ""a private creation, a nonportrait"" not representing any actual person or abstract idea: ""she exists in the first degree, she is that woman there."" Of course the expression of the lady is discussed here in an entertaining section in which the author remarks that ""all faint smiles are physically pretty much alike. . . smiles that have a tender meaning, or smiles that signify the recent eating of canaries."" There is a nice analysis of all elements in the picture, including the tenebrous background set against the warm roundness of the figure. The author goes out on a relatively safe limb to discuss the painting in terms of ""contrast, analogy and ambiguity"" and Leonardo's obsessive linking of philosophy to the forms of nature. Later chapters follow the painting's reception and impact and interpretation from the 16th century to the present, and there's a delightful section concerning the celebrated theft and the two-year (1911-1913) absence from the Louvre. With 152 illustrations, a fine tribute to the artist, some celebrated viewers and that ""cold and lonely lovely work of art.

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 1975
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin