It’s all in the eyes—and the lips
A detailed comparison of the two versions of the Mona Lisa reveals some subtle differences
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 23 February 2012
The most obvious difference between the Louvre’s original and the Prado’s copy on the Mona Lisa are her eyebrows. In the Madrid version, she has distinct, partially-plucked eyebrows. In the original of the Mona Lisa, there are no eyebrows, a style which was fashionable at the time.
In the mid-16th century Italian art historian Georgio Vasari went out of his way to mention Lisa’s eyebrows, saying that they “could not be more natural: the hair grows thickly in one place and lightly in another following the pores of the skin”. This suggests that Vasari may be writing about the Prado copy, not, as has been assumed, the Louvre original.
Vasari provided a detailed description of the painting, but because it was thought that he was wrong about the eyebrows, his account has often been dismissed—unfairly, as it now seems. The Prado’s collection director, Gabriele Finaldi, suggests that Vasari may be right in his explanation about Lisa’s smile.
According to Vasari, while Leonardo was painting Lisa, “he had her constantly entertained by singers, musicians and jesters so that she would be merry and not look melancholic as portraits often do”. Vasari says this produced a smile, which was “so enchanting that it was more divine than human”.
The Prado’s infra-red images shows that the lips of the copy were drawn schematically, and Finaldi stresses that it was the subsequent build-up of paint that gives the smile it’s very special effect. Lisa presumably came to Leonardo’s studio to sit for him—with the anonymous copyist in the wings, discreetly observing her enjoying the music.
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