Five centuries after Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa(1503–19), the portrait hangs behind bulletproof glass within the Louvre Museum and draws thousands of jostling spectators each day. It is the most famous painting in the world, and yet, when viewers manage to see the artwork up close, they are likely to be baffled by the small subdued portrait of an ordinary woman. She’s dressed modestly in a translucent veil, dark robes, and no jewelry. Much has been said about her smile and gaze, but viewers still might wonder what all the fuss is about. Along with the mysteries of the sitter’s identity and her enigmatic look, the reason for the work’s popularity is one of its many conundrums. Although many theories have attempted to pinpoint one reason for the art piece’s celebrity, the most compelling arguments insist that there is no one explanation. The Mona Lisa’s fame is the result of many chance circumstances combined with the painting’s inherent appeal.
There is no doubt that the Mona Lisa is a very good painting. It was highly regarded even as Leonardo worked on it, and his contemporaries copied the then novel three-quarter pose. The writer Giorgio Vasari later extolled Leonardo’s ability to closely imitate nature. Indeed, the Mona Lisa is a very realistic portrait. The subject’s softly sculptural face shows Leonardo’s skillful handling of sfumato, an artistic technique that uses subtle gradations of light and shadow to model form, and shows his understanding of the skull beneath the skin. The delicately painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the careful rendering of folded fabric reveal Leonardo’s studied observations and inexhaustible patience. And, although the sitter’s steady gaze and restrained smile were not regarded as mysterious until the 19th century, viewers today can appreciate her equivocal expression. Leonardo painted a complex figure that is very much like a complicated human.
Many scholars, however, point out that the excellent quality of the Mona Lisa was not enough by itself to make the painting a celebrity. There are, after all, many good paintings. External events also contributed to the artwork’s fame. That the painting’s home is the Louvre, one of the world’s most-visited museums, is a fortuitous circumstance that has added to the work’s stature. It arrived at the Louvre via a circuitous path beginning with Francis I, king of France, in whose court Leonardo spent the last years of his life. The painting became part of the royal collection, and, for centuries after, the portrait was secluded in French palaces until the Revolution claimed the royal collection as the property of the people. Following a stint in Napoleon’s bedroom, the Mona Lisa was installed in the Louvre Museum at the turn of the 19th century. As patronage of the Louvre grew, so too did recognition of the painting.
The identity of the portrait’s sitter soon became more intriguing. Although many scholars believe that the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, no records of such a commission from Francesco exist, and the sitter has never been conclusively identified. The unknown identity has thus lent the figure to whatever characterization people wanted to make of her. During the Romantic era of the 19th century, the simple Florentine housewife who may have been portrayed was transformed into a mysterious seductress. The French writer Théophile Gautier described her as a “strange being…her gaze promising unknown pleasures,” while others went on about her perfidious lips and enchanting smile. The English author Walter Pater went so far as to call her a vampire who “has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.” The air of mystery that came to surround the Mona Lisa in the 19th century continues to define the painting and draw speculation.
Meanwhile, the 19th century also mythologized Leonardo as a genius. Throughout the centuries after his death, he was well regarded—but no more so than his esteemed contemporaries Michelangeloand Raphael. Some scholars have noted, however, that, as interest in the Renaissance grew in the 19th century, Leonardo became more popularly seen not only as a very good painter but also as a great scientist and inventor whose designs prefigured contemporary inventions. Many of his so-called inventions were later debunked, and his contributions to science and architecture came to be seen as small, but the myth of Leonardo as a genius has continued well into the 21st century, contributing to the Mona Lisa’s popularity.
The writers of the 19th century aroused interest in the Mona Lisa, but the theft of the painting in 1911 and the ensuing media frenzy brought it worldwide attention. When news of the crime broke on August 22 of that year, it caused an immediate sensation. People flocked to the Louvre to gape at the empty space where the painting had once hung, the museum’s director of paintings resigned, accusations of a hoax splashed across newspapers, and Pablo Picasso was even arrested as a suspect! Two years later the painting was found in Italy after an art dealer in Florence alerted the local authorities that a man had contacted him about selling it. The man was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant to France, who had briefly worked at the Louvre fitting glass on a selection of paintings, including the Mona Lisa. He and two other workers took the portrait from the wall, hid with it in a closet overnight, and ran off with it in the morning. Unable to sell the painting because of the media attention, Peruggia hid it in the false bottom of a trunk until his capture. He was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the theft while the painting toured Italy before it made its triumphant return to the Louvre. By then, many French people had come to regard the work as a national treasure that they had lost and recovered.
The Mona Lisa was certainly more famous after the heist, but World War I soon consumed much of the world’s attention. Some scholars argue that Marcel Duchamp’s playful defacement of a postcard reproduction in 1919 brought attention back to the Mona Lisa and started a trend that would make the painting one of the most-recognized in the world. He played against the worship of art when he drew a beard and mustache on the lady’s face and added the acronym L.H.O.O.Q. (meant to evoke a vulgar phrase in French) at the bottom. That act of irreverence caused a small scandal, and other cunning artists recognized that such a gag would bring them attention. For decades after, other artists, notably Andy Warhol, followed suit. As artists distorted, disfigured, and played with reproductions of the Mona Lisa, cartoonists and admen exaggerated her further still. Over the decades, as technology improved, the painting was endlessly reproduced, sometimes manipulated and sometimes not, so that the sitter’s face became one of the most well known in the world, even to those who had little interest in art.
A tour of the painting to the United States in 1963 and to Japan in 1974 elevated it to celebrity status. The Mona Lisa traveled to the United States in no less than a first-class cabin on an ocean liner and drew about 40,000 people a day to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., during the portrait’s six-week stay. Large crowds greeted the portrait in Japan about ten years later. What’s more, as travel has become increasingly affordable since the late 20th century, more and more individuals have been able to visit Paris and pay their respects in person, contributing to the unyielding crowds of today.
Although the Mona Lisa is undoubtedly good art, there is no single reason for its celebrity. Rather, it is hundreds of circumstances—from its fortuitous arrival at the Louvre to the mythmaking of the 19th century to the endless reproductions of the 20th and 21st centuries—that have all worked together with the painting’s inherent appeal to make the Mona Lisa the world’s most famous painting ever.
WRITTEN BY: Alicja Zelazko