Around 500 years ago, the god among men, Leonardo Da Vinci, painted the Mona Lisa. It’s a work of artistic brilliance. Brushstrokes disappear. Anatomical features are detailed with striking accuracy. Da Vinci blurs the background and gives Lisa the spotlight. She is close up and face-to-face. Light and shadow playing around her. This painting raised the bar for master painters and changed the way that painters painted.
There are many reasons to admire the Mona Lisa, and yet this painting remained relatively obscure outside of the art world until 1911, when it was stolen by a pissed off employee at The Louvre who felt it rightfully belonged to Italy. The rest is history.
Ask anyone to name a famous painting and most people will undoubtedly name the Mona Lisa.
Life is a bit like that. The reason we find many things to be important is not because we see it’s value ourselves but because we are told it’s value. Many people had gone to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen. They approached. Stood. Stared. Studied. Admired.
It’s a bit harder to enjoy the masterpiece these days though. Millions of people pass in front of her every year. Masses of people with phones and cameras hoard around the painting, trying to catch a shot of it.
Coincidentally, there are thousands of photographs (probably better ones) available online than anything we might capture standing in the mob, but part of going to see the Mona Lisa is the social currency it affords. The “I was there. I saw it” aspect. While I like the Mona Lisa, it isn’t my favorite painting, by far. I think a lot of people would echo that sentiment.
We tend to value the things that we continually hear are important. We tend to value the things that are placed on a pedestal, no matter how recently they were in the dirt. It’s why Van Gogh died without fame but is now considered a great artist. It’s why The Great Gatsby was considered a failed work and spiraled F. Scott Fitzgerald into depression and death, and now it’s got it’s own movie and Leonardo di Caprio. It’s why Titanic was considered a failure before it even saw the darkness of a movie theatre but went on to break box office records. It’s why the Impressionists saw the doors of the Academie slammed in their faces and now their work hangs in the world’s best museums.
Now millions of people go to see the Mona Lisa every year. A scandal made them do it. Thing is, the painting was always valuable. It was valuable when he was conceiving it. I won’t have her standing like most portraits. I’ll have her sit. I won’t show her entire body, just her waist up. I won’t paint on canvas but on wood. It was valuable when he was executing it. I won’t use traditional techniques; I’ll create new ones. Sfumato. Chiaroscuro.
The techniques that da Vinci perfected have influenced the work of other artists to this day. The work was valuable before it became mainstream.
The Mona Lisa is not a loud painting. It’s not even large. It’s the subtleties that make it great. It’s why people admired, but people didn’t swarm. She was quietly brilliant. It was the scandal of theft and the thrill of recovery that brought the eyes of the world to the Mona Lisa.
Maybe we aren’t a world stage genius like da Vinci, but we can be the genius of our own lives. Just like the Mona Lisa, the subtle parts of our life can make a big difference. How do we spend our time? What types of people do we spend it with? How do we spend our money?
Leonardo da Vinci didn’t create a new genre of art with the Mona Lisa, but he did create new techniques to execute the work in the best way that he could.
We might not completely overturn our lives and go sell paddleboard rentals on an island somewhere, but we can challenge ourselves regularly to see whether the way we are living is pushing us to be better.
Are we doing the expected because society says it’s good enough, or our we pursuing our passions and cultivating our talents to the potentials that we are capable of no matter where society says we should place our efforts? Are we looking for new ways of living if our old way or the accepted way isn’t working or isn’t making us happy? Are we doing things that will make our lives reflect our values, our strengths and our genius?
Let’s be sure that we weren’t going with the flow of what society deems worthy of attention. Let’s decide for ourselves what’s valuable. Let’s open our eyes and look around. Let’s realize that there are many ways of living and we can choose our way to a large degree. Let’s not wait for approval. As with all great things, approval will come; we’ve just got to keep an eye out for the masterpiece that we are creating– our own lives.