The two works of art chosen for this exercise are – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman (Marie Therese). Both these works are masterpieces of visual art and exemplify the defining features of their respective movements. What is common between them is that they are both portraits of women. But the sense of aesthetics is distinct between the two.
There are several reasons why Mona Lisa’s appeal to art lovers has endured through five centuries and superseding art movements. The enigmatic, inviting yet warm hint of a smile of the model is a constant source of discussion and debate. The artistic sensibilities and the cultural preoccupations of the High Renaissance are witnessed in the work. That Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath with a keen interest in the sciences inform a reading of Mona Lisa. For example, the intricate detail, complexity and the multiple perspectives applied to the work is typical of High Renaissance art and also da Vinci’s style. The intellectual rigor of his endeavors in the fields of optics, engineering, biology and aeronautics are brought to bear on the technical approach to painting the Mona Lisa. For, unlike Picasso’s spontaneous and quick creations (including the Seated Woman), da Vinci’s approach to his art was highly meticulous. But he was also highly experimental with his art, which led to ground-breaking innovations as in Mona Lisa.
Pablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Seated Woman (Marie Therese) is aesthetically far removed from da Vinci’s great work. One of the leading proponents of Cubism, Picasso’s emphasis is in deconstructing three-dimensional real-life visuals into the realm of two-dimensionality. Whereas graceful curves and soft lighting are central features of Mona Lisa, the Seated Woman is defined by sharp straight lines and abrupt changes in color. The personal relationship of the muse to the artist always has a bearing in the nature of the art work. This is applicable to the two works in discussion as well. In the case of Mona Lisa, the model Lisa Gherardini is the wife of Francesco del Giocondo – the latter commissioning the work. Hence the model was no more than a formal acquaintance to the artist in this case. In contrast, Marie Therese was a long-term mistress to Picasso. This accounts for the impression of greater intimacy in Seated Woman. The fact that the artist was in love with his muse adds an intangible layer to the work, which is evident in the Seated Woman. The painting carries a sense of harlequinade – the stark bright bands of color are so placed that the dress appears like a costume. A measure of a work of art’s quality is it’s openness to multiple interpretations. The Seated Woman certainly offers more than one. For example, a cursory glance at the image reminds one of the Queen from a deck of playing cards. The interspersed stripes and color bands accentuate this impression.