Why Is the Mona Lisa So Famous?

Da Vinci Mona Lisa
Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most recognizable piece of art in the world, but have you ever wondered just why the Mona Lisa is so famous? There are a number of reasons behind this work's enduring fame, and combined, they create a fascinating story that has survived through the ages. To understand why the Mona Lisa remains one of the art world's most iconic images, we have to look at her mysterious history, famous theft attempts, and innovative art techniques.

Interesting Facts: The Mona Lisa

  • The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci and is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco Giocondo.
  • For such a famous painting, it is surprisingly small; it measures just 30 inches by 21 inches (77 cm by 53 cm).
  • The painting uses a number of unique art techniques to draw the viewer in; Leonardo's skill is sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa Effect.
  • The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, and wasn't recovered for over two years; she is now housed behind bulletproof glass to protect her from vandals.

The Mona Lisa's Origins

The Mona Lisa was painted over the course of several years by Leonardo da Vinci, the Florentine polymath and artist who created some of the Renaissance's most iconic works. Born Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci in 1452, he was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, and although there is little information about his childhood, scholars do know that as a young man he was apprenticed to an artist and sculptor named Andrea di Cione del Verrocchio. He created many sophisticated pieces of art over the course of his career, and in the early 1500s, began work on what would come to be known as the Mona Lisa.

Unlike many artworks of the time, the Mona Lisa is not painted on canvas. Instead, she is painted on a poplar wood panel. While this may seem odd, keep in mind that Leonardo was a sculptor and artist who had painted on large walls of plaster throughout much of his career, so a wooden panel probably wasn't much of a stretch for him.

It is generally believed that the painting is of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. The word mona is a colloquial version of the Italian word for madam or ma'am, hence the title Mona Lisa. The work's alternate title is La Giaconda. It is believed that the painting was commissioned by Giocondo to commemorate the birth of the couple's second child.

Over the years, there have been theories that Lisa Gherardini was not in fact the model in this painting. Speculation abounds that the mysterious woman in the image could be any one of a dozen Italian noblewomen of the time; there is even a popular theory that the Mona Lisa is a feminized version of Leonardo himself. However, a note written in 1503 by Agostino Vespucci, an Italian clerk who was assistant to Niccolò Machiavelli, indicates that Leonardo told Vespucci he was indeed working on a painting of del Giocondo's wife. In general, art historians agree that the Mona Lisa really is Lisa Gherardini.

Scholars also agree that Leonardo created more than one version of the Mona Lisa; in addition to the del Giocondo commission, there was likely a second commissioned by Giuliano de Medici in 1513. The Medici version is believed to be the one that hangs in the Louvre today.

Unique Art Techniques

Leonardo's sketches and drawings: Hands of Mona Lisa
ilbusca / Getty Images

Unlike some artwork of the sixteenth century, the Mona Lisa is a very realistic portrait of a very real human being. Alicja Zelazko of Encyclopedia Britannica attributes this to Leonardo's skill with a brush, and his use of art techniques that were new and exciting during the Renaissance. She says,

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. 

In addition to the use of sfumato, which was rarely done at the time, the woman in the portrait has an enigmatic expression on her face. At once both aloof and alluring, her soft smile actually changes, depending on the angle from which the viewer is looking. Thanks to differences in spatial frequency perception within the human eye, from one viewpoint she looks cheerful... and from another, the viewer can't quite tell if she's happy or not.

The Mona Lisa is also the earliest Italian portrait in which the subject is framed in a half-length portrait; the woman's arms and hands are displayed without touching the frame. She is shown only from head to waist, sitting in a chair; her left arm rests on the arm of the chair. Two fragmentary columns frame her, creating a window effect that looks out over the landscape behind her. 

Finally, thanks to Leonardo’s mastery of lighting and shadows, the woman's eyes appear to follow the viewer wherever they may be standing. Leonardo wasn't the first to create the appearance that a subject's eyes are following people around the room, but the effect is so closely associated with his skill that it has become known—somewhat incorrectly—as the "Mona Lisa Effect."

Grand Theft Painting

Earliest Copy of Mona Lisa Found at El Prado Museum
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

For centuries, the Mona Lisa hung quietly in the Louvre, generally unnoticed, but on August 21, 1911, it was stolen right off the museum's wall in a heist that rocked the art world. Author Seymour Reit says, "Someone walked into the Salon Carré, lifted it off the wall and went out with it! The painting was stolen Monday morning, but the interesting thing about it was that it wasn't 'til Tuesday at noon that they first realized it was gone."

Once the theft was discovered, the Louvre closed for a week so investigators could piece together the puzzle. Initially, conspiracy theories were everywhere: the Louvre had staged the heist as a publicity stunt, Pablo Picasso was behind it, or perhaps French poet Guillaume Apollinaire had taken the painting. The French police blamed the Louvre for lax security, while the Louvre publicly ridiculed law enforcement officials for failing to turn up any leads.

After more than two years, in late 1913, a Florentine art dealer named Alfredo Geri received a letter from a man who claimed to have the painting. Geri immediately contacted the police, who soon arrested Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian carpenter who had been working at the Louvre at the time of the theft. Peruggia admitted that he had simply lifted the masterpiece from the four hooks upon which it hung, stuck it under his workman's tunic, and just walked out the door of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa was found tucked safely away in Peruggia's apartments, just a few blocks from the museum. Peruggia said he stole the painting because it belonged in an Italian museum rather than a French one. There were also rumors he had taken it so that a forger could make copies of it to sell on the black market.

Once the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, the French turned out in droves to see her, and soon, so did people from all over the globe. The small, simple painting of a maybe-smiling woman had become an overnight sensation, and was the most famous work of art in the world.

Since the 1913 theft, the Mona Lisa has been the target of other activities. In 1956, someone threw acid on the painting, and in another attack the same year, a rock was thrown at it, causing a small bit of damage at the subject's left elbow. In 2009, a Russian tourist flung a terra cotta mug at the painting; no damage was done, because Mona Lisa has been behind bulletproof glass for several decades.

The Most Famous Face in the World

Mona Lisa
digitalimagination / Getty Images

The Mona Lisa has influenced countless painters, from Leonardo's contemporaries to today's modern artists. In the centuries since her creation, the Mona Lisa has been copied thousands of times over by artists around the world. Marcel Duchamp took a postcard of Mona Lisa and added a mustache and a goatee. Other modern masters like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali painted their own versions of her, and artists have painted her in every conceivable manner, including as a dinosaur, a unicorn, one of Saturday Night Live's Coneheads, and wearing sunglasses and Mickey Mouse ears.

Although it is impossible to put a dollar amount on a 500-year-old painting, it is estimated that the Mona Lisa is worth nearly $1 billion.

Sources

  • Hales, Dianne. “The 10 Worst Things That Happened to Mona Lisa.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Aug. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/dianne-hales/the-10-worst-things-mona-lisa_b_5628937.html.
  • “How To Steal A Masterpiece and Other Art Crimes.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Oct. 1981, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1981/10/11/how-to-steal-a-masterpiece-and-other-art-crimes/ef25171f-88a4-44ea-8872-d78247b324e7/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.27db2b025fd5.
  • “Theft of the Mona Lisa.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/mona_nav/main_monafrm.html.
  • “Work Mona Lisa – Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco Del Giocondo.” The Seated Scribe | Louvre Museum | Paris, www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mona-lisa-portrait-lisa-gherardini-wife-francesco-del-giocondo.