How Did the Mona Lisa Become the World’s Most Famous Painting?: It’s Not What You Think

Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished, five century-old portrait of a Florentine silk merchant’s wife, Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini), is, quite possibly, the most famous painting in the world.

And its subject possesses the world’s most captivating smile, inspiring rhapsodies and parodies in seeming equal measure. (Its Italian title, La Gioconda, is a nod to the sitter’s married name, and depending on whom you ask, translates as “joyous,” “light hearted,” or  “merry.”)

The Louvre, where the painting has resided since 1804 (following stints in Fontainebleau, the Grand Palace of Versailles, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom), reserves a special mailbox for paeans from Mona Lisa fans.


Ask a random person on the street how this comparatively dinky oil on wood came to be so universally celebrated, and they’ll logically conclude it’s got something to do with that smile.

Those with a background in visual art may also cite Renaissance innovations in painting technique — atmospheric perspective and sfumato, both of which Leonardo employed to memorable effect.

Those are good guesses, but the real reason for the Mona Lisa’s enduring global renown?

The public’s love of a good crime story.

As art historian Noah Charney, author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting, recounts in the animated TED-Ed lesson above, La Giocanda owes her blockbuster reputation to a sticky-fingered Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia.

In 1911, Peruggia, a painter whose day job involved building crates for works in the Louvre’s collection, hid in a cupboard for hours after closing, then escaped via a back door, the unframed canvas tucked beneath his arm.

The police papered the streets of Paris with the Mona Lisa’s likeness on missing flyers, and the press fanned interest in both the crime and the painting. Readers devoured updates that identified poet Guillaume Apollinaire and painter Pablo Picasso as suspects, and steamy theories regarding the nature of the relationship between Leonardo and the lady in the portrait.

As art critic Laura Cumming writes in The Guardian, “Millions of people who might not have seen it, might never even have heard of it, soon became experts on Leonardo’s stolen painting.”

For two years, its whereabouts remained unknown:

(Peruggia) kept her in a cupboard, then under a stove in the kitchen, and finally in (a) false-bottomed trunk. For a while, he rather cockily propped her postcard on the mantelpiece… But fairly soon he seems to have found her hard to look at, impossible to live with; there is evidence of repeated attempts to sell her.

The thief eventually arranged to repatriate the purloined painting to Italy, striking a deal with Florentine art dealer Alfred Geri, who summoned the police as soon as he verified the work’s authenticity.

The Mona Lisa was restored to the Louvre, where eager crowds clamored for a look at a newly minted household name they could all recognize by sight, as “newspapers took the story for a victory lap.”

Find a quiz and customizable lesson plan on the reasons behind the Mona Lisa’s fame here.

Hats off to animator Avi Ofer for his puckish suggestion that Leonardo might have taken some flattering liberties with Lisa del Giocondo‘s appearance.

Related Content:

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Leonardo Da Vinci’s To-Do List from 1490: The Plan of a Renaissance Man

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Coursera Offers $100 Off of Coursera Plus (Until January 13), Giving You Unlimited Access to Courses & Certificates

A new deal to start a new year: Between now and January 13 2022, Coursera is offering a $100 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $299) gives you access to 90% of Coursera’s courses, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more). The $299 annual fee–which translates roughly to 81 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2022, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (before January 13, 2022) here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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Coursera Offers $100 Off of Coursera Plus (Until January 13), Giving You Unlimited Access to Courses & Certificates

A heads up on a deal: Between now and January 13 2022, Coursera is offering a $100 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $299) gives you access to 90% of Coursera’s courses, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more). The $299 annual fee–which translates to 81 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2022, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (before January 13, 2022) here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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Doreen Ketchens’ Astonishing Rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”: A World-Class Clarinetist Busks on the Streets of New Orleans

Dirtiness has no description. It is a  feeling. — music transcriber George Collier

You may be able to read music and play the clarinet, but it’s extremely unlikely you — or anyone — will be able to play along with Doreen Ketchens‘ “dirty” solo on “The House of the Rising Sun,” above, despite an assist from Tom Pickles‘ scrolling transcription.

Download the transcription for free and keep trying.

It’s what Ketchens, a world renowned clarinetist and music educator, who has played for four US presidents and busks regularly in the French Quarter, would advise.

“You have to practice and be ready to perform at the drop of a hat” she told The Clarinet‘s Ben Redwine, when he asked if she had any advice for young musicians hoping to make it professionally.


She’s also a strong advocate of listening robustly, not throwing in the towel when someone else gets the job instead of you, and letting your personality come through in your playing:

You don’t want to sound like you’re playing an etude book. This is for all types of music – even classical. You want to move the audience, you want to touch them.

Trained as a classical clarinetist, Ketchens cozied up to jazz shortly after she cozied up to the tuba player who would become her husband. “All of the sudden, jazz wasn’t so bad,” she says:

I started to listen to jazz so I could learn the tunes and fit in with his band. I started listening to Louis Armstrong. He is my biggest influence. Some people call me Mrs. Satchmo, I guess because that concept is in my head. I’ll hear something he plays, which I’ve heard thousands of times, and I’ll think, “What? How did he do that?” Then, I listened to the clarinetists who played with him: Edmund HallBuster BaileyBarney Bigard. Those cats were awesome too! Edmund Hall had this thing he could do, where it sounds like he was playing two tones at the same time. People today might hum while they play to achieve something similar, but I don’t think that was what he was doing. Buster Bailey had a similar background to me, starting out with classical music, then learning jazz. Early on, I emulated Jerry Fuller, clarinetist with the Dukes of Dixieland. I would steal so many of his solos just so I could keep up with my husband’s band. Eventually, I realized what he was doing, and it translated into me being able to improvise. I’d start out transcribing solos, then playing by ear, copying what those clarinetists were doing. I don’t remember those solos now, but I’m sure that I still play snippets of them that creep into my improvisations.

However she got there, she possesses a singular ability to make her instrument growl and her command of 32nd notes makes us feel a little lightheaded.

Clarinetists abound in New Orleans, and they probably all cover “The House of the Rising Sun,” but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more exciting rendition than Ketchens’ on the corner of St. Peter and Royal, with husband Lawrence on tuba and daughter Dorian on drums.  Here’s the full versions, sans transcription.

You want an encore? Of course you do.

How about Ketchens’ magnificent solo on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra?

Find more astonishing, transcribed solos and a heaping helping of Jacob Collier on George Collier’s (no relation) YouTube Channel.

His transcriptions, and those of collaborator Tom Pickles, are available for free download here, unless the artist sells their own transcription, in which case he encourages you to support the artist with your purchase.

If you’re a music nerd who would like to discuss transcriptions, give feedback on others’ attempts, and upload your own, join his community on Discord.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, theatermaker, and the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her latest book, Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto, will be published in early 2022.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

John Cleese Presents His 5-Step Plan for Shorter, More Productive Meetings (1976)

Let’s face it, meetings are boring at best and at worst, chaotic, volatile, and potentially violent. And let’s also face it: to get through life as functioning adults, we’re going to have to sit through one or two of them — or even one or two of them a week.

Maybe we’re the one who calls the meetings, and maybe they all feel like a waste of time. One solution is to have more informal meetings. This can be especially tempting in the age of work-from-home, when it’s impossible to know how many meeting attendees are wearing pants. Fewer rules can raise the spontaneity quotient, but allowing for the unexpected can invite disaster as well as epiphany.


On the other end of the scale, we have the formality of parliamentary rules of order, such as those introduced by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert in 1876. Robert, whose father was the first president of Morehouse College, gained a wealth of experience with unproductive meetings as he traveled around the country with the Army. One particular meeting became a defining experience, as one account has it:

While in San Francisco, the local leader of his community didn’t show up for a church meeting. Henry Robert was asked to preside over the town hall (without any prior notice). Let’s just say that on this particular evening in 1876, he did a bad job. An hour into the meeting, people were screaming and the church actually erupted into open conflict.

Sadly, this sort of thing has become almost routine at town halls and school board meetings. But it needn’t be so at the office. Nor, says John Cleese in the brief video above, do meetings need to follow the formality of parliamentary procedure.

Cleese’s rules are simpler even than the simplified Roberts or Rosenberg’s Rules of Order, an even more simplified version of Robert’s Rules. Furthermore, Cleese avoids using words like “Rules” which can be a turn-off in our egalitarian times. Instead, he presents us with a “5-Step Plan” for holding better and shorter meetings.

1. Plan — Clear your mind about the precise objectives of the meeting. Be clear why you need it and list the subjects.
2. Inform — Make sure everyone knows exactly what is being discussed, why, and what you want from the discussion. Anticipate what information and people may be needed and make sure they’re there.
3. Prepare — Prepare the logical sequence items. Prepare the time allocation to each item on the basis of its importance not its urgency.
4. Structure and Control — Take the evidence stage before the interpretation stage and that before the action stage and stop people jumping ahead or going back over ground.
5. Summarize all decision and record them straight away with the name of the person responsible for any action

Easy, right? Well, maybe not so easy in practice, but these steps can, at the very least, illuminate what’s wrong with your meetings, which may currently resemble one of Cleese’s many parodies of business culture. Nobody videophoned it in at the time, but trying to figure out who’s supposed to be doing what can still take up an afternoon. Let Cleese’s five steps bring order to the chaos.

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

Behold 84 Great Novels Reinterpreted as Modernist Postage Stamps

Ali Johnson and Jim Quail of Liverpool-based design studio Dorothy had a hit with their music-based graphicswhich recast seminal alternativepsychedelicelectronic, and post-punk albums as oversized postage stamps.

Now, they’ve turned their attention and knack for highly condensed visual responses to the realms of literature.

Their Modern Classics collection, above, synthesizes 42 titles into something emblematic and essential.

How many have you read?

How many would you be able to identify based on image alone?

It’s easy to grasp why the horizon figures prominently in On The RoadThe Grapes of Wrath, and The Road.

And understandably, the eyes have it when it comes to 1984A Clockwork Orange, and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Elsewhere, the visual representations create connections that may take readers by surprise.

(Stay tuned for a master’s thesis that teases out thematic parallels between The Color Purple’s quilts and Holden Caulfield’s red hunting hat in The Catcher in the Rye.)


According to Johnson, she and Quail, avid readers both, fell out several times over which titles to include (and, by extension, exclude).

English teachers at middle and high school level will rejoice at the number of syllabus favorites that made the cut.

Potential stamp-themed creative assignments abound.

The conch may be an obvious choice for Lord of the Flies, but what of The Great Gatsby‘s green light?

Why not the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg?

swimming pool?

Or one of those beautiful shirts?

Discuss!

Then make your own stamp!

Students are far less likely to be conversant in the 42 earlier works comprising Dorothy’s literary Classics stamps, though musical and movie adaptations of Little WomenDracula, and Les Miserables should provide a toehold.

Our ignorance is such, we may need to reread Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jane Eyre … or at least Google the significance of a spoon and all those orange and red triangles.

(Back in our pre-digital youth, Cliff’s Notes were the preferred Philistine option…)

Dorothy’s stamp prints of Classics and Modern Classics are available for purchase on their website.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A 110-Year-Old Book Illustrated with Photos of Kittens & Cats Taught Kids How to Read

 

Unlike our 21st-century cat memes and other such online feline-based entertainments, children’s author Eulalie Osgood Grover’s 1911 work, Kittens and Cats: A First Reader was intended to educate.

Its related poems will almost certainly strike those of us whose understanding of feline attitude has been shaped by LOLCatsGrumpy Cat, the existential Henri, Talking Kitty Cat’s acerbic Sylvester, and the mordant 1970s TV spokescat Morris as sweet to the point of sickly. But it boasts six hundred vocabulary words, a rhyme structure that promotes reading aloud, and a note to teachers with suggestions for classroom activities.

Grover explained how her feline cast of characters would win over even the most reluctant reader, inspiring “much the same delight to the little reader of juvenile fiction, as do adventure and romance to the grown-up reader”:

In one respect kittens take precedence over dolls. They are alive. They must be treated kindly. They will not bear the abuse and neglect given to many beautiful dolls. They demand attention and companionship, and they return a real devotion in return for kindness and care. Therefore we love them and especially do our children love them and delight in stories of them.

The loosely structured story concerns a grand party thrown by the Queen of the Cats. Following some breathless preparations, the guests take turns introducing themselves to her majesty, though unlike T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), there’s not much that could be cobbled into a hit musical.

Grover fleshes out the narrative with callbacks to a number of cat-rich nursery rhymes — Hickory Dickory DockThree Little KittensHey Diddle DiddleAs I Was Going to St. IvesDing Dong Bell

One lace-bonneted character is reminiscent of Tom Kitten’s mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, and her unsuccessful attempts to wrangle her rambunctious offspring into clothing fit for “fine company,” though the wit falls somewhat short of Beatrix Potter’s.

Headgear abounds, as do restrictive buntings that must’ve been a great help when dealing with uncooperative models and long exposures.

Although the photographer is uncredited, the images are likely the work of Harry Whittier Frees, a “pioneer of the anthropomorphic kitten photograph genre” as per the New York Daily News. In his introduction to his far more ambitiously posed 1915 work, The Little Folks of Animal Land, Frees alluded to his process:

The difficulties of posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness. My little models receive no especial training, and after their daily performance before the camera they enjoy nothing more than a good frolic about the studio.

That’s a pleasant thought, though historian and postcard collector Mary L. Weigley tells a somewhat different tale in an article for Pennsylvania Heritage, describing how only 3/10 of his negatives could be published, and his work was so “challenging, time-consuming and nerve-wracking” that he took 9 months out of every year to recuperate.

Cats!

Download a free copy of Eulalie Osgood Grover’s Kittens and Cats here.

via Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Make Comics: A Four-Part Series from the Museum of Modern Art


A painting? “Moving. Spiritually enriching. Sublime. ‘High’ art.” The comic strip? “Vapid. Juvenile. Commercial hack work. ‘Low’ art.” A painting of a comic strip panel? “Sophisticated irony. Philosophically challenging. ‘High’ art.” So says Calvin of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, whose ten-year run constitutes one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of the newspaper comic strip. The larger medium of comics goes well beyond the funny pages, as any number of trend pieces have told us, but as an art form it remains less than perfectly understood.  Perhaps, as elsewhere, one must learn by doing: hence “How to Make Comics,” a “four-part journey through the art of comics” from the Museum of Modern Art.

Created by comics scholar and writer Chris Gavaler, this educational series begins with the broadest possible question: “What Are Comics?” That section offers two answers, the first being that comics are “cartoons in the funnies sections of newspapers and the pages of comic books” telling stories “about superheroes or talking animals” — or they’re longer-format “graphic novels,” which “can be more serious and include personal memoirs.”


The second, broader answer conceives of comics as nothing more specific than “juxtaposed images. Any work of art that divides into two or more side-by-side parts is formally a comic. So if an artist creates two images and places them next to each other, they’re working in the comics form.”

That second definition of comics includes, say, Andy Warhol’s Jacqueline Kennedy III — a work of art that conveniently happens to be owned by MoMA. The museum’s visual resources figure heavily into the whole “How to Make Comics,” in which Gavaler explains not just the process of creating comics but the relationship between comics and other (often longer institutionally approved) forms of art. And to whatever degree they juxtapose images, the works of art in MoMA’s online collection — rich as so many of them are with action, character, narrative, humor, and even words — offer inspiration to comic artists budding and experienced alike. The better part of two centuries into its development, this thoroughly modern medium has the power to incorporate ideas from any other art form; the high-and-low distinctions can take care of themselves. Enter “How to Make Comicshere.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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