Museum  May 5, 2023  Megan D Robinson

The Mona Lisa: A Brief History of da Vinci's Famous Painting

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, oil on panel, circa 1503. Detail.

Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous, recognizable, and copied artwork, has a storied history. Painted between 1503 and 1519, it was owned by French royalty for centuries. Liberated by Revolutionary forces, the painting briefly adorned Napoleon’s bedroom, then was installed in the Louvre. Over 80% of Louvre visitors come specifically to see Mona Lisa. Due to new queuing practices, visitors have only 30 seconds to admire the painting’s legendary mystique.

Thought by most scholars to be a portrait of Italian noble Lisa del Giocondo, this beautiful, dark-haired woman with an enigmatic gaze has fascinated people for ages. Unlike most 16th-century portraits of nobility, which showed off their social status and wealth with flamboyant clothing, hairstyles and accessories, Mona Lisa is dressed in elegant simplicity, which draws attention to her face.

Painted in a revolutionary ¾ length pose—contrary to typical Italian portraiture, which used full figure poses—Mona Lisa is not stoic or demure. Deviating from traditional female portraiture, she meets our eyes directly, as a man typically would, turning slightly towards the viewer, smiling at some secret amusement. Da Vinci’s expert portrayal of a subtle smile illustrates exhaustive understanding of human anatomy, while his deliberately irregular brushstrokes over her face give the skin a realistic texture.

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The empty iron brackets at the Louvre that once held the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa showcases many painterly techniques da Vinci employed, including sfumato and aerial perspective. DaVinci used sfumato, which means “vanished or evaporated,” to create imperceptible transitions between light and dark, while the background fades into the distance. This is another deviation from traditional Italian portraiture, which painted the background in the same sharp focus as the central figure.

Relatively unknown to the general public, but lauded as a masterwork by artists and intelligentsia, Mona Lisa’s 1911 theft brought notoriety. Picasso, French poet Apollinaire and American tycoon JP Morgan were all suspects during the investigation, but the actual culprit was Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, with two accomplices. One of the accomplices claimed to have made six indistinguishable forgeries, leading to a rumor that the Mona Lisa currently in the Louvre is a fake.

Courtesy Flickr.

The Mona Lisa in the Louvre's Salle des États and protected by a purpose-built, climate-controlled enclosure topped with bulletproof glass. Photo by Joe Parks.

Now exhibited in a climate controlled case made of bulletproof glass, Mona Lisa has survived vandalism and attempted theft. Moved into a glass case sometime in the 1950’s, because an obsessive fan tried to cut it out with a razor blade and take it home, the painting was slightly damaged in 1956, when a thrown rock shattered the glass case, dislodging a speck of pigment near her left elbow. The newer bulletproof case has continued to protect it. In 1974, while on loan for an exhibition at theTokyo Museum, the painting was sprayed with red paint by an activist protesting lack of disability access. Back at the Louvre, in 2009, a woman threw a teacup at it because she'd been denied French citizenship.

Also one of the most expensive paintings in the world, Mona Lisa became a Guinness World Records holder in 1962 for the highest known painting insurance valuation, $100 million, which is at least $870 million today. Given that it’s deemed irreplaceable, it’s probably worth more.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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