This picture makes her look like a BIG masterpiece. She ain't one of those.
She looks as if she's living in a smallish living-room aquarium, 30" in high by 20 7/8" wide (77cm by 53 cm). That's why I've given her a couple of goldfish swimming past, and a plastic rock to the right.
I've thought about her sometimes over the forty years since I first saw her at her current French residence. I was, at the time, trying to do a 'Five Minute Louvre', in emulation of the late and very lamented Art Buchwald, who never tried it himself , but apparently met a very serious Swede who had actually accomplished: Entry to the Louvre, sight of the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Victory of Samothrace, in turn, and was out of the back door in five minutes flat.
Anyway, what I'm on about today are the anomalies of that famous icon of womanhood. Look at this picture, and ask yourself just why:
- the landscapes at left and right are completely different; climates, horizon, colours and all. It's just as if Leonardo cut-and-pasted a couple of his apprentices' efforts into his final production. We can all do this now, thanks to Photoshop, but Leonardo had to use very much more basic means.
- the famous smile; it's ambiguous, because Leonardo used an old painter's trick; perhaps he invented it himself. Smudge the ends of the lips, and you really can't tell what she's thinking.
But look again at the image on this post. Just because I've put a plastic rock right next to her smile, her smile's got a reference point that shows she's definitely smirking.
- the lazy come-to-bed eyes. Well they're part of the whole, but look again.
The right eye (from your perspective) is a bit higher than the left one. A few millimetres down and she'd look like any dumb peasant woman. And the eyes are looking in different directions. They're slightly away from looking directly at you. They are but they aren't. Another old painter's trick.
- the veil - she's wearing a very, very light veil. It's just visible over her head, and, by inference, over her body. This is is a guarnello, typically used by Italian women of that time, while pregnant or just after giving birth.
(That's a symptom of the long tradition in many cultures about the uncleanness or untouchable sacredness of women at menstruation or birth - I'll deal with this story another time).
- her bosom is quite ridiculous. No woman has a perfectly straight neck, and no woman's chest flows smoothly, and roundly, down to a pair of hidden milk-and-honey breasts. This part of the picture is pure fiction.
- below the tits, and before her arms, there's a big area of ambiguous shadow. But this shows up Leonardo's deliberate manipulation of normal human anatomy.
Look at the right hand side. Her veil covers her arms, but is light enough not to stick to them. Her real arms, shown below the veil, are much to short to fit the grand portrait L de V planned for the conventional head-n-shoulders portrait applicable at the time. He should have chopped it off 2/3 of the way down.
- and the arm of the chair she's sitting in; from what little you can see, it's probably something like what we call a captain's chair (without all the swivels and stuff), with horizontal curved arms.
But that little obscure detail contributes a huge amount to the distance she preserves from you, the observer.