Week 8: Stephen Allen

Asking for a definitive pinnacle of human endeavor in art is like asking your choice of unanswerable questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Who closes the door when the bus driver gets off of the bus? Take your pick but defining the pinnacle moment in art history has to be near the top of the list. To me, this stems from the fact that so much of the value of art stems from its importance to its time, rather than its quality in a larger scheme. Masterpieces from Ancient Egypt aren’t necessarily masterpieces, but they illuminate the culture of their time, and tell a story that no living person could. The driving factor behind the value of the art of many eras is its importance, not necessarily its quality. As artists, it is our responsibility to constantly try to learn from the best that came before us. I have said this many times over the course of my time in this class; anything can be art. But the art that communicates the most effectively and tells the most powerful stories is always the best in its vein. For example, if you could view an accountant’s spreadsheets as art, the ones with the brightest minds behind them, and the most thoughtful craftsmanship put in to them are always more expressive and effective than those without the same quality.

All of that goes to say that even though asking for a pinnacle in human endeavor is an unanswerable question, it is one that has to be thought upon, because in order to be the best artist that you can be you must learn from the best in your area of study. So yes, I do agree that the renaissance is the pinnacle of human endeavor, in every way that it can be. The greatest and most famous paintings and sculptures of all time were born during the renaissance. Some of the most important artistic movements also arose during the renaissance.

In my opinion the best and most lasting artistic pieces are those that spur on the most conversation. Sometimes it is because these pieces are shrouded in mystery, sometimes it is because people are constantly questioning what the exact intention of the artist was, and sometimes it is simply because they are so good. One piece exemplifies all three of these, and that is of course the Mona Lisa (Leonardo Da Vinci c. 1503-1519). The Mona Lisa is without a doubt the most famous painting in the world. There are very few people that do not know its name, or at least recognize it immediately.

mona lisa

The Mona Lisa is the contrast of the simple and the complex, the original and the groundbreaking, and the normal and the utterly mysterious. There are so many things about the Mona Lisa that seem very normal. A portrait of a sitting woman is not necessarily a ground breaking idea, but in its execution the Mona Lisa never ceases to amaze. The main reason for its continued discussion over other works that are comparable in quality is the mystery surrounding the piece. First, is she smiling? If so then why is she smiling? Second, who is depicted in the Mona Lisa? This is the question with the most mystery, and thus the most theories regarding it. Some believe the Mona Lisa is a depiction of a wealthy Florentine merchants wife. Sigmund Freud (among others) purported that the painting is actually of Da Vinci’s mother, and that the smile arose from a subconscious memory of her. A more outlandish theory is that the Mona Lisa is actually a self portrait of Da Vinci himself in drag.

As a painting in and of itself the Mona Lisa depicts a simple portrait of a woman, against and idealistic, but undetailed background. The muted colors paint a somewhat somber picture of what should be a somewhat plain woman, but her wry smile–which somehow dominates the entire painting–creates a feel that is anything but. The thin brushstrokes give a fine texture to the woman, while wide brushstrokes create a background that is blurry enough to not be distracting, but detailed enough to add to the painting. The light of the painting shows the sun shining on the woman front, illuminating both her and the background. My favorite part of this painting is the woman’s hands. They aren’t the most beautiful hands, but they show an immense amount of character, creating a sense of reality in the painting.

As a painting in and of itself, I really don’t see what is so special about the Mona Lisa. It is a very good piece, but not any better than many of Da Vinci’s other works, or a number of other renaissance era paintings. But what makes the Mona Lisa so great, and subsequently what makes the renaissance the greatest era in the history of art is that it drives the viewer to go beyond the surface of the painting, to ask questions, and to search for answers. It does such a good job of this that it is still the most famous painting in the world 500 years later.

In my opinion, we do not need another renaissance in our current day and age. This is because I believe the world has reached a point where culture, custom, and normality are in constant flux. The renaissance came after 1,000 years of the same feudal system, many of the same religions and values, and similar cultural norms. Today, with the prominence of technology and the political climate, I think going even 100 years without major culture change is impossible. The change that occurred during the renaissance was what drove the revival of art. Today, change is so constant that new avenues of pursuing art are constantly being explored. The lack of need for a renaissance does not stem from the fact that we are sufficient in a number of areas, it stems from the fact that the world is in a constant cycle of renaissance of sorts.


Britannica, T. E. (2017, August 18). Mona Lisa. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mona-Lisa-painting

History.com Staff. (2010). Renaissance Art. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance-art

Adams, L. S. (2011). A history of western art. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

One thought on “Week 8: Stephen Allen”

  1. This introduction led perfectly into the prompt! Well done! Your analysis was also very thorough. You bring up an intersting point about constnat social change. Do you feel like that maybe we are in constant Renaissance?


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