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Behind the Art: Why is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa so famous?

Why is the Mona Lisa so famous and what led it to having the most expensive insurance policy in history? Why was Picasso arrested in suspicion of stealing the painting?

Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa painting, everything to know about Mona Lisa, indian express newsPainted around 1503–1506, the painting has the most expensive insurance policy in history. (Photo: Pixabay)

The iconic painting by Leonardo Da Vinci has been one of the most talked about pieces of art for decades now. I, just like any other person, got caught up in the hype of it and went to Paris to see it in the Louvre Museum. Much has changed over the years and now when I am becoming an artist of my own, I started wondering what exactly is so special about the painting. Let’s face it, there are better paintings out there such as The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Leonardo also isn’t the only famous painter of his time. His work was always compared with his competitors such as Michelangelo and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino. Painted around 1503–1506, the painting has the most expensive insurance policy in history, valued at $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $650 million in 2018.

The Mona Lisa

When Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, he would have never imagined it to be hanging in a French museum behind a bulletproof glass five centuries later. I remember queuing up to see the painting at the museum and struggled to catch a glimpse because of the crowd that was surrounding it. At first, it appears to be very intimidating — with the bulletproof glass guarding it. However, when I went close to it, I noticed it is a very subdued portrait of an ordinary woman who is sitting on a chair wearing a thin black veil and a soft smile on her face. To a viewer’s eyes who does not understand artistic techniques, it is a very simple painting. The much talked about veil on Mona Lisa’s head is not as apparent as it is talked about. In the 19th century, Leonardo was considered not just a good painter but also a great inventor. The Mona Lisa however, picked popularity after writers of the 19th century started showing interest in the painting — mainly for the art technique called SFUMATO that Leonardo used to make this painting standout from others.


Mystery of the sitter’s identity 

The mystery around the sitter in the painting seems to have deepened over the years. Popularly, it is thought to be a commissioned painting of Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of silk merchant Freancesco del Giocondo. Sigmund Freud seemed to think that the half smile of the lady in the painting was a ‘recovered memory of Leonard’s mother’. Many artists believed the painting is a self portrait due to certain masculine features of the sitter. Some even say that Leonardo painted an imaginary woman, or a woman who is his ideal type. 

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Several artists and leaders were obsessed with the Mona Lisa. So much that one painter even died by suicide because of it. (Photo: Pixabay)

The other versions of Mona Lisa

There have been speculations that Leonardo created more than one version of the painting. One such piece was found in Switzerland which is called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has dated the painting back to Leonardo’s lifetime. What is surprising is that it was allegedly hidden in a Swiss bank for 40 years before it was shown to the public in 2012. In the same year, Museo del Prado in Madrid announced that it had discovered another copy of the painting done by a pupil of Leonardo. People flocked to see this because it gave a better indication of how the painting looked at that time.


The theft

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Mona Lisa was relatively unknown. But its fate changed when in 1911, it was stolen from the Louvre. The high profile theft helped publicise and popularise the painting. If one goes to the museum now, it is impossible to move an inch without being captured by many cameras and security guards. My interest, like any others, was heightened because the painting is so well secured.


What made the theft in 1911 even more scandalous is that Picasso was one of the main suspects and was arrested in the case. When Picasso came to Paris in 1900, he made a friend called Guillaume Apollinaire who was a poet and had a secretary called Géry Pieret. Knowing Picasso’s love of the 3rd and 4th century Iberian sculptures then on display at the Louvre, Pieret decided to steal a couple of them from the museum. If it isn’t obvious by now, stealing from Louvre was relatively a painless mission due to lack of proper security measures. Picasso would actually go on to use the face of one of the statues in his famed 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1911, Pieret decided to steal more items from the museum and when his boss Apollinaire found out, he kicked him out. Ironically, this happened on the day Mona Lisa was stolen.

When the news of Mona Lisa being stolen spread, Picasso got worried about the other possessions he held that belonged to the museum. Pieret informed the Paris-Journal about the location of the other stolen items in order to either get revenge or make some money. Apollinaire desperately gave all the items to the editor of the paper in order to get rid of the items and to bury the truth. This just backfired and the police found out about the stolen items after grilling the editor. Apollinaire and Picasso were arrested but the painting was never found at their residences. They were eventually released four days later since they truly had no knowledge of the painting.

The seductive smile and the love affair

Leonardo da Vinci started work on the Mona Lisa around 1503, thought to be a commissioned painting of Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of silk merchant Freancesco del Giocondo. French art critics began using it as a model of Renaissance painting techniques in the mid-19th century. Many started making up stories about how much the silk merchant loved his wife and wanted her to be immortal. There were also rumours about Leonardo falling in love with the look of seduction in her eyes and the smile. Many believe he made two versions of the painting, keeping one and delivering the other. Many also believe he never delivered the painting to the one who commissioned it and kept it by his side and even ‘slept next to the painting’. 


Love at first sight

It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte kept the Mona Lisa hanging in his bedroom of the Tularies Palace for four years. He was so attracted to this painting that he fell in love with an Italian woman named Teresa Guadagni, who was believed to be a woman from the family of Lisa Gherardini.

The Mona Lisa currently sits behind bulletproof glass which was donated by Japan as a gift after it was exhibited in the Tokyo National Museum attracting over 2 million visitors in 1974. (Photo: Unsplash)

Obsession and suicide

According to an article by the New York Post, several artists and leaders were obsessed with the Mona Lisa. So much that one painter even died by suicide because of it. The tale of a 19th century artist Luc Maspero is a prime example of the power the painting has over people. In 1852, he allegedly threw himself from the fourth-floor window of his Paris hotel, leaving a suicide note that said, ‘For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die.’

The unmatchable art techniques

What Leonardo did with the painting was very different to what artists did at that time. The Florentine tradition at that time called for artists to outline the painted image. Whereas, Leonardo perfected a technique called SFUMATO, which means ‘vanished or evaporated’ in Italian. He blended the object of interest, which is Mona Lisa, with the light, background and blended everything including the borders. His brush strokes are so subtle that it is invisible to the naked eye. Which is why maybe I, like many art lovers, could barely make out the veil in the painting. Leonardo was fascinated by the way light falls on curved surfaces and thus he made Mona Lisa’s face glow by creating several layers of transparent colour in her hair, and the thin veil she is wearing on her head.

A priceless beauty

By now you all must be wondering just how much is the Mona Lisa worth? In terms of money of course. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has the most expensive insurance policy in history, valued at $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $650 million in 2018. But, as the French government is not selling, it is literally a priceless beauty that no one can have.


All in all, as an art lover, I did not truly appreciate the painting in person because I did not research enough about the art techniques that Leonardo used. I failed to see what was so special about the smile and the background. It is not apparent that the circumstances, technique and the mystery surrounding the sitter all make a perfect conversation starter. Leonardo would have never thought his long-forgotten painting would overtake most of his famous pieces and inventions. Mona Lisa is a painting that will never lose its magic and will truly be a gem forever.


Next Up in Behind The Art: Why is Johannes Vermeer’s painting ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ so famous? What is the real story behind the identity of the girl in the painting? 

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First published on: 22-05-2022 at 10:15:32 am
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