Is the Mona Lisa really “ten times better than every other painting”? No one seriously believes this, and how would anyone measure such a thing? There may be no such critical scale, but there is a popular one. The Louvre, where the famous Leonardo da Vinci—maybe the most famous painting of all time—hangs, says that 80 percent of its visitors come just to see the Mona Lisa. Her enigmatic smile adorns merchandise the world wide. Books, essays, documentaries, songs, coffee mugs—hers may be the most recognizable face in Western art.
Learn in the Vox video above, however, how that fame came about as the result of a different kind of publicity—coverage of the Mona Lisa theft in 1911. It became an overnight sensation. “Before its theft,” notes NPR, “the ‘Mona Lisa’ was not widely known outside the art world. Leonardo da Vinci painted it in 1507, but it wasn't until the 1860s that critics began to hail it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting. And that judgment didn't filter outside a thin slice of French intelligentsia.”
Though the painting once hung in the bedroom of Napoleon, in the 19th century, it “wasn’t even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre,” historian James Zug tells All Things Considered. Writing at Vox, Phil Edwards describes how an essay by Victorian art critic Walter Pater elevated the Mona Lisa among art critics and intellectuals like Oscar Wilde. His overwrought prose “popped up in guidebooks to the Louvre and reading clubs in Paducah.” Yet it was not art criticism that sold the painting to the general public. It was the intrigue of an art heist.
In 1911, an Italian construction worker, Vincenzo Perugia, was working for the firm Cobier, engaged in putting several paintings, including the Mona Lisa, under glass. While at the Louvre, he hatched a plan to steal the painting with two accomplices, brothers Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti. The crime was literally notorious overnight. The theft occurred on Monday morning, August 21. By late Tuesday, the story had been picked up by major newspapers all over the world.
Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire went on trial for the theft (their case was dismissed). Conspiracy theories popped up all over the place, claiming, as per usual, that the whole thing was a hoax or a distraction engineered by the French government. “Wanted posters for the painting appeared on Parisian walls,” Zug writes at Smithsonian. “Crowds massed at police headquarters. Thousands of spectators, including Franz Kafka, flooded the Salon Carré when the Louvre reopened after a week to stare at the empty wall with its four lonely iron hooks.”
Once the painting was restored, the crowds kept coming. Newspaper photos and police posters gave way to t-shirts and mousepads. The painting's undoubted excellence seemed incidental; it became, like Andy Warhol's soup cans, famous for being famous. Learn more about the Mona Lisa’s long strange trip through history in the short Great Big Story video above.