The Appreciation of Fine Art


The term “art appreciation” is one that is heard quite often, and most colleges and universities offer a course or a series of courses under that name.  But how does one “appreciate” art?  For that matter, how does one appreciate opera or classical music?  Most people would be able to recognize the inherent beauty of these art forms even if they lacked an in-depth knowledge of them.  But with greater understanding of these subjects, the more your enjoyment of these art forms can increase, and fine art is no different.

To explain how one can enjoy a greater familiarity with art, I’m going to take a different approach than I usually do: I shall teach by example, using a painting that is well known to everyone, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” or “La Gioconda,” as the painting is known to the Italians.  I have had the rare fortune of seeing Leonardo’s famous painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris; it is arguably the most renowned work of art in the world.

When introduced to the Mona Lisa at the age of eighteen, I have to admit that I was not as impressed by it as I should have been; after having viewed the Baroque spectacle of the Rubens Room, with its huge tumultuous canvases, Leonardo’s small, quiet panel was something of a disappointment to me.  Perhaps I can be excused for this, given my youth and the fact that this painting has suffered from considerable overexposure in modern times.  Fortunately my opinion of Leonardo’s painting improved over the years as I learned more about art in general and Leonardo’s work in particular.  And this is a fine example of how deepening my understanding of art allowed me to revise my attitude about this remarkable painting.

The Mona Lisa is a small easel painting, approximately 18 inches by 24 inches, done in oil paint on a wooden panel.  Commissioned by the sitter’s husband, a Florentine merchant named Francesco del Giocondo, the artist worked on the portrait from 1503 to 1506, taking it with him from Italy when he traveled to France to join the court of King Francis I.  Like most of Leonardo’s work, it remains unfinished.

When I look at reproductions of the Mona Lisa today, the first thing that I notice is the soft and gentle rendering of the forms, created by Leonardo’s “sfumato,” an Italian term that refers to the gentle transition between light and dark.  This effect was made possible by the use of oil paint, still relatively new at the time, rather than the more traditional tempera.  This, along with the muted color scheme and the strange landscape in the background, gives the composition an air of mystery and subtle drama. 

The figure of the woman is characterized by obvious grace and beauty, and the gentle melancholy of her eyes is reinforced by the famous “smile that doesn’t smile.”  One side of her mouth is higher than the other, giving an ambiguous expression.  This is also found in the face of St. Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” also in the Louvre. In fact, St. Anne bears a noticeable resemblance to Mona Lisa, suggesting that the artist was painting an archetypal female, rather than a portrait of a specific individual.  This may have been why the portrait was rejected by the lady’s husband.

The landscape in the background seems less realistic than one would expect from Leonardo, considering that his scientific study of the natural world combined with his artistic sensibility made him a master of landscape.  This is instead a dream world, with winding roads overshadowed by dark cliffs and a sense of foreboding, a world both graceful and turbulent.  Along with its atmosphere of mystery, it is also a land that is devoid of human beings; we see evidence of Man’s activity, such as the roads and the aqueduct, but not Man himself.  A welcoming world this is not; contemporary accounts describe Leonardo as reserved and secretive, and undoubtedly the cold world that Mona Lisa inhabits reflects the wariness that the artist felt towards his own society.  And as every work that an artist undertakes is a portrait of his own psyche, the contrast between the serenity and elegance of the woman with the ominous background may reflect the duality of Leonardo’s soul; the reserved and dignified exterior, concealing the turmoil within.

The Mona Lisa represents Leonardo’s mature style, and was imitated by many of his pupils and later artists; none of these efforts could equal that of the master himself.  Perhaps only Raphael, with his unsurpassed ability to absorb the influence of other artists, realized the grace and refinement of Leonardo’s style without resorting to mere imitation.  For five hundred years the Mona Lisa has been seen as a consummate example of the power of the painter’s craft; its ability to engage and enthrall generations of admirers is unequaled, and the mystique that surrounds this painting is matched only by the brilliance of the man who conceived it.

As you can see, the previous six paragraphs constitute a critical appraisal of the Mona Lisa, and it will be evident that my perceptions of this painting are highly personal.  Each individual will be affected differently by this marvelous painting, and this is the way it should be.  Every work of art is a personal experience; a way for the viewer to find his own answers to the questions that the artist poses.  The viewer is not a passive participant; the viewer is as much a part of the artist’s work as any element on the canvas itself.  To this end, the artist should never make his message too explicit: it is left to the viewer to complete the painting.

One can also make a more technical assessment of an artwork, taking into consideration such things as design, composition, technique, color and medium, and how the artist used these to convey his idea to the viewer.  To evaluate a work of art in this manner requires a familiarity with those subjects, and I have written about some of these topics in previous articles.  It is also helpful to know something about the life and personality of the artist, as well as the time period and the society in which he lived.  These factors have a major impact on the artist’s style, subject matter and technique; understanding these considerations gives us a sense of how the artist viewed the world around him, and perhaps how he viewed himself.

No single work of art exists in isolation: it must always be viewed along with the rest of the artist’s body of work, and within the broader history of art itself.  An acquaintance with other examples of the artist’s work allows us to see how his ideas and style evolved over time; also by gaining an insight into one work by the artist we may better understand another. We also need to see how the artist’s work fits into the larger context of art: how he was influenced by his contemporaries; how his work was influenced by earlier artists; and how subsequent artists were themselves influenced by his art.

The impact that the artist’s work makes on the viewer validates the efforts of the artist; a painting that has no effect on anyone is a failure.  As a teenager, standing before Leonardo’s small painting, I could appreciate its obvious greatness.  Nonetheless, my ignorance allowed me to miss a great deal of what it had to offer.  As I expanded my knowledge and familiarity with art, I was able to correct that unfortunate situation and to see the Mona Lisa for the treasure that it is.  I hope that my experience with this legendary painting will help you to undergo that same transformation, not only in regard to the Mona Lisa, but with the whole of the world’s legacy of fine art.

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Source by Charles Griffith