Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

“Mona Lisa is the only beauty who went through history and retained her reputation” – US entertainer Will Rogers

The Mona Lisa (1503-19) is one of the most famous paintings in the world. More than 500 years after it was painted, it continues to draw thousands of spectators to the Louvre museum in Paris each day, each eager to get a glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci’s legendary handiwork.

But when those visitors do finally get to see the painting up close, they may well wonder what all the fuss is about. Hung behind bullet-proof glass, the portrait is small and depicts a rather ordinary woman dressed modestly in dark robes with a translucent veil and no jewellery.

It isn’t loud, it isn’t flashy, it isn’t big, and it doesn’t depict anyone well-known. Why – then – has the Mona Lisa become such an iconic painting?

Critics have argued that it is the woman’s enigmatic face that gives it its appeal, but – in truth – the painting’s celebrity is as unknown as the woman who is its subject. Here we explore some of the many contributing factors that may explain its fame.

A masterpiece of its time

There can be no doubt that the Mona Lisa is a very good painting. The woman’s three-quarter pose was highly-regarded as new and novel at the time of painting, and much copied by Leonardo’s contemporaries in subsequent works. It is also regarded as a very realistic portrait; the woman’s steady, neutral gaze and restrained, half-smile reveal nothing of her inner feelings, portraying the complexity of human emotion.

The painting also demonstrates Leonardo’s expertise in using sfumato, an artistic technique that uses subtle gradations of light and shadow to model form. The soft sculpting of his subject’s face shows the artist’s understanding of the structure of the skull beneath the skin. In addition, his patience and attention to detail can be seen in the unknown woman’s delicately painted veil, finely shaped hair and the artist’s skilful representation of the folds of her clothes.

But the question remains – is the quality of Leonardo’s artwork enough to explain why the painting has become so iconic? There are many good paintings, but few achieve the Mona Lisa’s level of celebrity. Perhaps there are other, external factors that could help explain the painting’s fame…

Location, location, location

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Mona Lisa’s home is in the Louvre in Paris – one of the most well-known and frequently-visited museums in the world. Undoubtedly this location has helped to boost its status in popular culture; as the museum has grown, so has recognition of the painting.

But the Mona Lisa has been held in the highest esteem throughout its life: its first home was in the royal collection of Francis I, King of France, in whose court Leonardo spent the latter years of his life. For more than 250 years, the portrait was hidden away in a variety of French palaces until the French Revolution saw the royal collection claimed as property of the people. The Mona Lisa hung for a time in Napoleon’s bedroom, before being installed in its current home in the Louvre at the turn of the 19th century.

The mysterious woman

It has been claimed by many scholars that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. But there is no record of del Giocondo ever commissioning such a painting, and no hard evidence to prove that his wife is the subject depicted.

Who – then – is the mysterious woman in Leonardo’s painting?

During the Romantic period of the 19th century, popular legend transformed the simple Florentine housewife into an enigmatic seductress, with French writer Théophile Gautier describing her as a “strange being… her gaze promising unknown pleasures”. Others referred to her “perfidious lips” and “enchanting” smile. English author Walter Pater went one step further, labelling her a “vampire” who “has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”.

The unknown identity of the portrait’s subject allows people to give her whatever characterisation they desire, and has allowed the air of mystery that surrounds the woman to persist from the 19th century to the present day, coming to define the painting and continuing to draw much speculation.

Leonardo’s genius

In the centuries following his death, Leonardo was highly regarded by many, but no more so than his contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael. But as interest in the Renaissance grew in the 19th century, Leonardo was increasingly seen as not only an excellent painter but also a great scientist and inventor whose innovative designs heralded many contemporary inventions.

Although many of these inventions were subsequently discredited, and his contributions to science and architecture are now regarded as relatively small, the myth of Leonardo the genius persists to this day, and may help explain some of the Mona Lisa’s celebrity.

Loss and recovery

Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell once sang: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. And that certainly seems to have been the case with the Mona Lisa.

Although interest in the painting had been high throughout the 19th century, it was its shock theft on 22 August 1911 and the ensuing media frenzy that brought it to worldwide attention. When the news broke, it caused an immediate sensation; people flocked to the Louvre to look at the empty space where the painting had hung, the museum’s director of paintings resigned, and accusations of a hoax were splashed across the newspapers. Artist Pablo Picasso was even arrested as a suspect.

It would be two years until the painting was rediscovered by an art dealer in Florence, Italy, who had been contacted by someone who wanted to sell it to him. The would-be seller was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant to France who had briefly worked at the Louvre fitting glass to paintings including the Mona Lisa.

Peruggia and two colleagues had taken the painting from the wall, hid in a closet with it overnight, and run off in the morning. Unable to sell it because of the media attention, Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa in the false bottom of a trunk, where it remained until his arrest.

After Peruggia’s trial, conviction and imprisonment, the painting toured Italy before making its triumphant return to the Louvre. Henceforth it was regarded by the French people as a national treasure that had been lost and found.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

The eccentric English cleric, writer and collector Charles Caleb Colton is quoted as saying: “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.” Indeed, it has certainly played a role in the story of the Mona Lisa’s fame.

In the years following its theft, the Mona Lisa achieved new heights of fame, until the outbreak of World War I consumed worldwide attention.

Some scholars argue that it was the actions of American-French painter Marcel Duchamp in 1919 that brought the painting back to the world’s attention and started a trend that would lead the painting to be regarded as one of the most recognisable in the world. Duchamp defaced a postcard reproduction of the painting by drawing a beard and moustache on the woman’s face and adding the acronym L.H.O.O.Q (suggesting a vulgar French phrase) at the bottom. The scandal that ensued encouraged similarly irreverent artists – including Andy Warhol – to follow suit in distorting, disfiguring and otherwise tinkering with reproductions of the Mona Lisa, in the hope that it would bring them attention too. Meanwhile, cartoonists and advertisers exaggerated her further still.

Throughout the 20th century, as technology developed, the painting was endlessly reproduced, both in its original and in manipulated fashions, leading the Mona Lisa to become one of the most instantly-recognisable faces in the world, even among those who have no interest in art.

Tour of the US and Japan

The Mona Lisa’s increasing celebrity status led to a tour – of the US in 1963 and of Japan in 1974. The painting travelled in a first-class cabin aboard an ocean liner and drew around 40,000 people per day to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the National Galley of Art in Washington DC during its six-week stay. Similarly large crowds flocked to see the portrait in Japan a decade later.

Celebrity status

To this day, the Mona Lisa continues to draw in the crowds. Many theories have attempted to pinpoint a single reason for the painting’s fame, but none of the potential explanations we have explored here seems compelling enough to be the sole, or even the main reason for its celebrity. And so it seems that there is no one explanation; rather it is a serious of chance circumstances, combined with the painting’s inherent appeal, that has made the Mona Lisa the most famous portrait ever painted.

The Mona Lisa is on public display at the Louvre museum in central Paris www.louvre.fr

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