Why Is Mona Lisa so yellow? / by artnoise

What would have happened if a work of art would have been painted by a foreign artist, with a different social background, different life experience and different capacities? What would have happened if the Mona Lisa, for instance, would have painted by a Swedish artist and not by Leonardo Da Vinci? Would it be so yellow?

Mona Lisa .jpg

Take a look closer. The dress, hair and skin would be different if the portrayed lady was a Scandinavian woman. Probably she would have blond hair and sharper features, but definitely she wouldn't be so yellow.

This is not a racial investigation. It is, instead, a pigmentation controversy.

As we may know, Mona Lisa was under years of accumulated varnish that was hiding the true pigment. The oil paint on wood, which was quite unusual at that time, is another reason. Before that, tempera on panel was used and the colours were quite flat. Also, Leonardo used lots of earthy colours for his painting to be as realistic as possible. That includes brownish and yellowish colours also. But thinking of the painting's colour figuratively, the yellow shades and the "sfumato" technique, typical of the Italian master, are in somehow necessary. However, she looks jaundiced but if it was cleaned, revealing the true colours, it would lose her mystery. Brighter colours would make her look like a younger and seductive lady. 

Not only Mona Lisa's colours are unrevealed under that varnish layer, but also the background, the sky, the details. Not only the smile is a mystery. Her eyes, her position, the environment. If Mona Lisa was Swedish instead of Italian, colours would be certainly different. So the mountains in the background.

 Alexander Roslin - The lady with the Veil (the Artist's Wife), 1768

Alexander Roslin - The lady with the Veil (the Artist's Wife), 1768

So, back to our question: what would Mona Lisa look like if it would be painted in Stockholm? Would she look like The Lady with the Veil by Alexander Roslin? Another portrait of a lady, a wife, a seductive woman? Colours are brighter, despite the black veil, and the skin is a natural tone.

Are we expecting something completely different as the two nationalities are so or the mystery behind a woman's glaze would be equally, and universally, interpreted? Is the yellowish shade part of a such mystery?

find out more about the history of colours in art