|Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine," left, and "Mona Lisa"|
The subject of stopping may seem a strange way to begin a blog, but more than one artist has brought up the issue, most often in a question, when talking about their own art: When should an artist stop working on a piece?
Art, after all, is not plumbing. No plumber wants to linger around the base of a toilet after calking its base. No plumber sits back and re-thinks a washer once it’s been properly installed. There is no guessing the time when a plumbing job is done. The same can be said of many other professions.
Artists, on the other hand, are more apt to wonder about the completeness of a project, and whether they have spent too little or too much time on a canvas. All artists hesitate toward the end of a project. Most second guess the finality of it. Some even fret over it. The ugly specter of a piece becoming “overworked” is always lurking in an artist’s mind.
Which brings us to what is inarguably the most famous work of art in the world – Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” It has been celebrated, copied, and parodied to the point that it is nearly impossible to avoid its recognition. I am sure there is a shaman of some obscure Amazonian tribe with a tattoo of the Mona Lisa on his left buttock.
da Vinci spent eight years working on that portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The true identity of the sitter has been disputed, but we’ll get to that later. For now, we can assume the artist had other things going on during the same time, what with dissecting cadavers, inventing battle tanks and schmoozing with Italian nobility.
Let’s also assume for a moment that Leonardo da Vinci had a friend named Guido. I often wonder why Guido didn’t take his artist-friend aside and say, “Leo baby, give it up on Mona already.” Guido should have stepped in during year two, and perhaps even earlier. In my opinion, da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is overworked. And ugly.
Now before you drag me outside the city walls and stone me for such artistic blasphemy, let an art curmudgeon give his nickel-worth of reasoning. And while you wipe the angry froth from your mouth, let me pull out another of da Vinci’s works for equal consideration – his “Lady with an Ermine.”
There is no doubt a great deal of mastery involved in much of the “Mona Lisa.” The background and drapery follow the conventions of that which was considered high art during the Italian Renaissance. Not so much the face. I find it strange that so much speculation surrounds the mystery of the smiling subject that it extends to ideas of self-portraiture, the artist’s mother and, if I may offer my own speculation, a monkey at the local zoo. The fact that the subject’s identity is questioned is reason enough for suspicion. She looks like no one and she looks like everyone. That is not how portraits are painted.
Now let’s take a gander at “Lady with an Ermine.” There is no doubt that we are looking at a specific person in time. We admire her features. We might even lament that she is no longer with us. But we don’t wonder if da Vinci was trying to put himself in that face. There isn’t a trace of his mother’s expression. There is no monkey face. Why?
The simple reason is that da Vinci knew when to cease work on the ‘Ermin Lady,’ but didn’t know when to stop working on the “Mona Lisa.” For some odd reason, he got hung up on getting something right in the expression or in the woman’s features. And for some odd reason, most smart folks are blind to that flaw.
Thankfully, there is a litmus test that can be applied to the “Mona Lisa” and “Lady with an Ermine” which settles the overworked ugliness argument. That test can be put in a question: Guys, which of the two women would you ask out on a date? I thought so. And don’t even think of inviting me on a double date.