“Looking” at the Mona Lisa

Sergio Velayos/Flickr

Crowd surrounding the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
Sergio Velayos/Flickr

I recently became upset (or cranky as my family would say) while reading about a broadcast last week on NPR’s Morning Edition.  It featured a Princeton Sociology professor who tried to determine whether it was quality or chance that made an artwork successful.  [After analyzing the data he collected, he concluded that as long as the work met “a basic standard of quality” it was chance that made art famous.]  But another pointless attempt to quantify art wasn’t what disturbed me, it was the photograph of the crowd around the Mona Lisa accompanying the article.

A scene like this can be seen just about any day at the Louvre, with visitors of different ages and races pushing to get a better view of da Vinci’s most famous work.  Yet, if you examine the photograph closely, can you find anyone actually looking directly at the painting?  One can excuse the guards, whose job is to look the other way (though their poses appear sadly indifferent to the masterpiece in their midst).  But even though some of these tourists have traveled thousands of miles at great expense to reach this room, most are looking at the Mona Lisa through the low-resolution screen of their phones or cameras. [Through a glass darkly, indeed!] Others are looking intensely at the results of a snapshot or showing it to a friend. Some are leaving the scene, satisfied that they have captured their prey and moving on to collect others.  I was excited when I noticed the young man on the right actually looking directly at the Mona Lisa, until I realized he was also listening to music with his headphones.

Of course, the large number of people, a layer of thick bullet-proof glass and two rows of barriers do not encourage quiet contemplation of a great work of art.  But the more I look at the photograph, the more I think that it is our celebrated technology enabled global culture that is the most significant barrier these visitors are facing.  Maybe what I read as the guard on the left’s indifference is actually justifiable disdain.

How to paint your own Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer posterWhat if you could paint your own Vermeer?  Teller (as in the famous magicians Penn and Teller) has directed a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer.  It was shown at the recent Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and is receiving great reviews.  It follows the investigation of an inventor, Tim Jenison, into the painting methods of Jan Vermeer.  Jenison is best known to those in Digital Media as the founder of NewTek and the mastermind behind the revolutionary Video Toaster (along with Dana Carvey’s brother Brad) back in the 1980s.

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Lead paint and Suffering Artists

Goya being treated by his doctor, 1820

Goya being treated by his doctor during his near-fatal illness in 1819.


The ‘suffering artist‘ became a theme almost simultaneously with artists becoming famous in the Renaissance.  Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th century autobiography contains in equal measures declarations of his achieving the impossible as an artist and collapses in his health when his work became “more than he could stand.” These would result in him throwing himself onto his supposed deathbed because of his trials and tribulations.  One can only sympathize with his poor housekeeper who had to withstand his cries of “I shall not be alive tomorrow” and “I feel I am dying!” while he ordered her about.

In this month’s issue of the Atlantic, Olga Khazan discusses a new journal article by Julio Montes-Santiago, a doctor from Spain, in her article called “How Important Is Lead Poisoning to Becoming a Legendary Artist?” While I usually am suspicious of articles in non-art oriented journals that pretend to ‘discover’ why an artist painted a certain way, there is no question that lead is a poison.  That’s why, even though it creates a warm, beautiful white, lead pigment is not used by commercial paint manufacturers anymore.  Dr. Montes-Santiago traces the history of ‘painters madness’ and the many famous artists and composers who may have suffered from it.  For example, he believes that one reason Michelangelo suffered from terrible kidney stones in his old age was his use of lead white paint.

Detail of Saturn Devouring his Son by Goya, 1819 - 1823
Saturn Devouring his Son (detail) by Goya, 1819 – 1823

Others have written of the impact the terrible illnesses that 19th century Romantic painter Francisco Goya suffered during his lifetime had on his career and the possibility that lead paint contributed to them (Goya was reputed to use enormous quantities of lead white in both his priming and paint).  Goya’s near deafness came after a  bout of illness in the 1790s and eventually forced him to leave his position as a teacher in the Academy (he couldn’t hear the students’ questions any longer).   Ultimately, he left the Spanish court as well and and retreated to what he called his “Deaf Man’s House” in the countryside, where he painted the famous Black Paintings, like “Saturn Devouring his Son.” Saturnism, ironically, is another word for ‘lead poisoning.’

Khazan’s article in the Atlantic discusses other writings on the subject of lead poisoning from the past as well and is an interesting discussion of how health issues may have haunted our favorite artists.  It’s well worth a look.