How the Mona Lisa Went From Being Barely Known, to Suddenly the Most Famous Painting in the World (1911)

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 Con­sid­eredWrit­ing 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire Were Accused of Steal­ing the Mona Lisa (1911)

Mona Lisa Self­ie: A Mon­tage of Social Media Pho­tos Tak­en at the Lou­vre and Put on Insta­gram

Orig­i­nal Por­trait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Lay­ers of da Vinci’s Mas­ter­piece

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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