Da Vinci Painting

Written by Sarah Provost
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The Leonardo Da Vinci painting Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous work of art ever created. In a way, such fame has worked to its disadvantage. We have seen it so often, in so many forms, that we barely see it at all any more.

Three Da Vinci Paintings of Women

What makes one painting an icon for centuries, recognized everywhere by everyone, while another languishes in museums and textbooks, awaiting the attention of scholars? Mona Lisa is only one of several intriguing Da Vinci paintings of women. Ginevra de Benci, painted in 1474, is a striking combination of steely self-possession and delicacy. This sulky young woman with a cast in one eye and a surly expression, has a strong, very round head, and a physical presence of absolute solidity, emphasized by the dark, prickly juniper bush behind her. Yet her skin is translucent, utterly idealized in its delicacy. If her expression weren't so unpleasantly human, she wouldn't seem real.

Cecelia Gallarani, painted in 1485, would seem to be Ginevra's opposite. This Da Vinci painting shows us a woman gentle and sweet, with an oval face, delicately pointed chin, and a wistful expression that is not quite a smile. The background here is blank, solid, which throws all our attention on Cecelia's sweet face--and the fierce-looking weasel-like animal she holds and caresses.

There is little of mystery in Ginevra. She's not letting anyone in, but one guesses there isn't much behind those dull eyes anyway. Cecelia would be unexceptionally sweet if it weren't for that odd unsettling animal, which seems almost to act as her familiar. Neither one looks at us, nor does Mona Lisa, painted in 1503. But we feel she sees us. The shape of her face, the pouchiness around her eyes make her far less idealized than the other two, and she wears none of Ginevra's transparent bodices or Cecelia's fillet and beads. Perhaps part of the appeal of this Da Vinci painting is that Mona Lisa, painted with twenty-nine years more experience, is a woman, not a girl like the others. Ginevra looks only inward. Cecelia gazes clear-eyed at the world, prepared for whatever she might see. Mona Lisa has seen it all, and she smiles.


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