The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. So, when my wife and I visited the Louvre years ago we of course decided to see the Mona Lisa. The room in which it was contained was packed and we had to wait in line for a long time until we were able to view it. The painting was surprisingly small and encased in glass. It’s a fine painting, but to my relatively untrained eye it is nothing special as compared to all the other great artwork we had viewed that day at the Louvre. So, why is the Mona Lisa so famous?
First, it is a very good painting. It is a very well done portrait and the enigmatic smile captured by da Vinci is complex and mysterious. If it were not a good painting it would not be famous. But there are plenty of very good paintings that are not famous.
Second, it is painted by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous people in history (ranked #6 of all time by the MIT Media Lab – list here). But, he’s created other paintings, only one of which is anywhere near as famous as the Mona Lisa, that being The Last Supper. Why isn’t his portrait La belle ferronnière as famous as the Mona Lisa?
A very good painting by a famous artist are likely necessary factors for worldwide fame but are not sufficient factors on their own to explain the Mona Lisa’s vast fame.
Arguably the reason the Mona Lisa became so famous is due to its being stolen. Here’s a description of what happened from Professor Albert-László Barabási from his book The Formula:
The truth is, though, that up until a century ago, the Mona Lisa was just one of many valuable paintings at the Louvre. It became a household name only after it was stolen in broad daylight in 1911, creating an international hunt for the thief. It turned into a worldwide mystery playing out in major cities, like New York, Paris, and Rome, trailed by stranger-than-fiction anecdotes—at one time Picasso was wrongfully arrested as an accomplice in the crime. The drama that surrounded the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance is what made the painting such a quintessential treasure. If it were ever to sell, it’s estimated that it would fetch an unheard-of $1.5 billion.
Britannica provides more details of the heist:
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.
So, the heist made the Mona Lisa famous over 100 years ago and that fame has persisted because it is possible to be famous for being famous (think Kim Kardashian). This concept of being famous for being famous occurs due to a phenomenon called preferential attachment – also known as the Matthew Effect or the Rich Get Richer. IFOD on this topic here (its quite interesting). I stood in line to see the Mona Lisa because it was famous and if I was already at the Louvre how could I not see the most famous painting in the world? Because the painting is famous it finds its way into the media and cultural references. It’s fame is self-perpetuating. You don’t have to know that it was stolen in 1911, yet the fame that that event created continues to ripple through history.
Other reasons for its fame:
- There is some mystery surrounding the identity of the subject of the painting. According to Britannica, “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.” This makes the painting more interesting that if the subject of the painting was known for certain.
- In 1919 the artist Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa with the letters L.H.O.O.Q. beneath them, which stands for a vulgar phrase in French. Duchamp’s defacement of the Mona Lisa led to many other satirical defacements of the painting over the ensuing 100 years, including works by Andy Warhol. and Eugène Bataille. Each parody of the Mona Lisa adds to the fame of the painting and further ensconces it in popular culture.
It also helped the Mona Lisa that it was installed in the Louvre at the beginning of the 19th century. Merely being in a private collection would not have led to its fame. Prior to then it was part of royal collections various French kings just hanging on walls in various palaces without fanfare. Much of the royal artwork, including the Mona Lisa, was reclaimed by the people of France during the French Revolution and the Mona Lisa spent some time hanging on Napoleon’s bedroom wall before finding its way to the Louvre.