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Mona Lisa in the 19th Century: The Silent Inspiration of Change

Irina Ciumac & Adam Rasky

Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
Leonardo da Vinci
"La Gioconda" from Sight and Song by Michael Field

Historic, side-long, implicating eyes;
A smile of velvet’s lustre on the cheek;
Calm lips the smile leads upward; hand that lies
Glowing and soft, the patience in its rest
Of cruelty that waits and doth not seek
For prey; a dusky forehead and a breast
Where twilight touches ripeness amorously:
Behind her, crystal rocks, a sea and skies
Of evanescent blue on cloud and creek;
Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest
For those vicissitudes by which men die.
In 1892, two Victorian poets, Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, published a book of poetry entitled, Sight and Song, under the pseudonym ‘Michael Field’. It was necessary for the two poets to use this pseudonym in order to hide themselves and more importantly their lifestyle from the public, as it was socially unacceptable. Not only were the two women involved in a prolonged lesbian relationship, they were also aunt and niece. Sight and Song is a collection of poetry that Fields had written after touring many of the most famous art galleries in Europe. Each poem corresponds to a painting that the poets had witnessed in their travels, and attempts to expand the reader’s understanding of the visual pieces. One of these poems, “La Gioconda”, corresponded to Leonardo da Vinci’s world-renowned portrait, the Mona Lisa (1519). This exhibit will explore how different texts, such as the poem “La Gioconda”, can inform upon the meanings behind this famous painting, depending on the social movements and institutions from which the texts emerge. We will also explore how various social and artistic movements within Victorian society can be exposed through the lens of the Mona Lisa, particularly the Aesthetic Movement and what is now retrospectively thought of as fledgling feminism.
Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper
Also known as "Michael Field"
“La Gioconda” is a poem that presents a unique perspective on the Mona Lisa. At first, the poem is largely descriptive, focusing on her eyes, cheeks, smile, and hands. However, the poem quickly transforms into something more sinister and meaningful. Field writes of “cruelty that waits and doth not seek for prey.” It now becomes apparent that this poem is about the power that women can have over men. The “Historic” woman in question need not hunt for men, she simply sits and waits for them to come to her. There is a sense that she is beyond the need to hunt, and this transcendence is indicative of a greater power. This theme is repeated in the last line of the poem, “for those vicissitudes by which men die”. As such, this poem could be interpreted as giving voice to the women who feel that the power of their sexuality is silenced in Victorian society. Were Michael Field not female, these lines would reflect a different aspect of Victorian culture.
Walter Pater
The philosophy behind the Victorian Aesthetic Movement was that art did not need a political, moral, or social purpose, but that art should be created for the sake of its own beauty.@ A prominent member of the movement and a founding writer on the principles and qualities of aestheticism was Walter Pater -- an author, poet, and art critic during the late 19th century. Pater’s work went on to influence artists and poets such as Oscar Wilde and even Michael Field. One of his most famous written works is The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873),@ an anthology of essays on famous artists and poets, including Leonardo da Vinci. During his studies at Queen’s College, Oxford, he was introduced to John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, which spoke of the beauty in nature and its importance in life, awakening Pater’s interest in the movement. Pater went on to study Greek and German philosophy and discovered the work of aesthetic German theorists Wincklemann, Lessing, Goethe, and Hegel.@
One of his most well known essays in the anthology was on the subject of Leonardo da Vinci and more specifically, the Mona Lisa. In the section titled, “La Gioconda,” (1869)@ Pater places the Mona Lisa along side “Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity,” an “ideal lady”@ that “the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire.”@ In this way, the Mona Lisa is an example of ideal feminine beauty. She represents not herself, but an idea of beauty in itself that resonates with all, in any age or era. The section ends with, “Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.”@ With such strong descriptions, Pater attempts to convey that the Mona Lisa was the perfect example of true feminine beauty that aesthetes craved to find.