No wonder the theft of the Mona Lisa caused such frenzy and misguided suspicions when it was stolen in 1911. It is one of the most well known paintings in the world, and one that seems to have universal appeal. Why is this painting still as revered and coveted today as the day it was stolen, or as when it was first painted? When people from different cultures or time periods share an understanding of an image, that image can be considered an icon.
In this lesson, students will investigate the question, "What is an icon?" They will compare their impressions and interpretations of the Mona Lisa to the hypothetical opinions of other people affected by this painting. This lesson is also a natural starting point for a discussion about which images have become, or will become, icons for the twentieth century, leading students to investigate the following Life-long Learning Question: What shared understandings does an iconic image communicate?
Grade Level: Middle and High School
Subject Areas: Visual Arts, History
Lesson Length: one to two class periods
1. communicate interpretations of a work of art supported by visual analysis and research. (Visual Arts Standard 1)
2. understand the way factors of historical and cultural context give meaning to a work of art. (Visual Arts Standard 4)
3. analyze the values of specific people who influenced or were influenced by historical events. (Historical Understanding Standard 2)
Assessment of Student Knowledge and Skills
Students will be able to:
1. combine an understanding of visual elements (line, color, shape, and texture) of the Mona Lisa with research information about the painter and painting (who, what, where, when, how) to build an interpretation.
2. construct interpretations of the Mona Lisa from different points of view based on cultural and historical knowledge.
3. compare and contrast points of views of the people affected by the Mona Lisa to determine any shared understandings of the painting and its power as an icon.
Lesson Materials and Preparation
1. Ask students to look at the Mona Lisa, and then write (in the left hand column of the Point of View Study Sheet ) the first thing that comes to mind when they see this image.
2. Discuss with them the fact that often with images as famous as the Mona Lisa, we don't really see the painting with fresh eyes. Facilitate the students' visual analysis of the painting by asking them to describe the elements of line, color, shape and texture as if they were describing the painting to someone over the telephone. Ask them to write their descriptions in the second column of the Study Sheet.
3. Students can enhance their visual analysis of the work by watching segments of the Mona Lisa episode (07:40:00 - 13:14:00 and 16:38:00 - 20:31:10) or by locating further information on this site. Ask them to add notes from their research in the third column of the Study Sheet.
4. In this lesson, rather than having students express their personal interpretations of the Mona Lisa, ask them to take the point of view of one of the many people who were affected by this painting. Ask them to answer the question, "Why is this painting important?" The various points of view can include those of:
To gain an understanding of how this person might think, students can use information from the episode, as well as the above links to additional information on this web site.
5. The students should use the information they have gathered from their visual analyses (notes in column two of the Study Sheet) and their research (notes in column three) to justify their interpretations of the Mona Lisa's importance from the viewpoint they select, and then write these notes in column four.
6. Have the students compare their viewpoints. Ask them:
- Are there any similar interpretations of Mona Lisa's importance?
- If there are differences in opinion, what could be the cause(s) of these differences?
- After hearing each of the different viewpoints, is there one shared understanding of why this painting is important?
- Have your initial thoughts about the painting changed since you considered it from a different point of view?
7. Students could recreate the discovery of the theft of the Mona Lisa by role-playing characters that were alive at the time of the crime. They can also take some creative liberties and include discussions between interested parties from the past and the future, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Andy Warhol (What an interesting conversation that would be!)
8. To extend this activity, engage students in a discussion about iconic images from the twentieth century. Select images that have become icons over the last one hundred years. Discuss with the students whether they feel these images have the same meaning for everyone? If not, why not? Are these images powerful to different people for different reasons? Examples could include:
- Iwo Jima
- Man on the Moon
- Tianamen Square
- Fall of Berlin Wall
- Marilyn Monroe
(Often photographs are the most powerful images to us today. Two good places to access famous photographic images online are the Library of Congress' American Memory Project and LIFE Magazine)
9. As the students consider the power of these images, remind them to think not only about the subject matter, but also about how the image is presented. Analyze the visual elements particularly important to photography:
10. As the students think about the iconic value of these photographs, have them discuss whether any of these images will become the "Mona Lisa" of our century.
- What visual aspects of the Mona Lisa make it so engaging?
- Are the same aspects apparent in any of these iconic photographs?
- How do the visual elements in the photograph support the presentation of the subject matter to contribute to the image's iconic power?
11. After their analyses of the subject matter and visual elements of an iconic image, have the class vote on "Mona Lisa for the Twentieth Century."
12. Once they have decided on the image, have students select a shared message for that image. Can the class agree on one key word or phrase that captures the meaning of this iconic image?
point of view
Resources for iconic images:
American Memory Project: What Do You See page
Resources for learning more about Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci:
Museums of Science in Boston: Exploring Leonardo
American Museum of Natural History: Leonardo's Codex Leicester
WebMuseum, Paris: Leonardo da Vinci
Sanford ArtEdventures: Leonardo's Workshop
ThinkQuest (Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?)
Inquiry and Innovation: Links between Science and Art
Grade Level: late Middle and High School
Subject Area: Visual Art, Science
Have students research the techniques Leonardo used in the Mona Lisa (i.e. sfumato, use of light, use of foreground and background, her expression) that depart from earlier painting tradition. Have them discuss the way each of these techniques leads Leonardo to more knowledge of his natural world. For example, how does Leonardo's use of intense color in the foreground - and techniques such as atmosphere and perspective to create distant objects - relate to his scientific understanding of the natural world? With which scientific principles do these painting techniques correspond? (i.e. the study of optics, meteorology, geology, effects of light, human psychology)
For Love of Art and Country
Grade Level: late Middle and High School
Subject Areas: Visual Art, History, Writing
Discuss ideas of national identity, and brainstorm about the causes of heightened patriotism (war, threats from other countries, prejudice, propaganda, prosperity.) Have students research the political and social climate in France and Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. How did both the French and the Italians associate their national identities with the Mona Lisa? Why, in the early twentieth century, did the painting appeal so strongly to both nations? Have the students take the role of either a French or an Italian journalist, and write editorials giving reasons the Mona Lisa belongs in their particular country.