The Story Behind the Art- the Mona Lisa



In 2011, I convinced my husband to take me on a trip of a lifetime, a dream destination since I was a child, because I love all things French, to Paris. 


There is an unwritten law when you go to Paris you must visit The Louvre. Okay, it’s not a law at all, but I kind of think it should be. Afterall, the Louvre is the home of the most famous and most expensive piece of artwork in the world, the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. 


If you haven’t been to the Louvre, saying it is big is an understatement. A word like ginormous comes to mind. It’s over 600,000 square feet and houses over 35,000 objects from the 6th century B.C to the 19th Century A.D. Despite the size of the Louvre, it isn’t difficult to find the Mona Lisa. She is located on the first floor between the Italian and the French paintings in the Salle des États, the largest room in the museum. But, really all you have to do is look for the crowds and flashing cameras. 


 I edged my way through the mass of people eager to study and observe the most famous painting in the world. I later learned some visitors actually buy a Louvre ticket just to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa. She’s that big of a deal. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit I shared the sentiments of my not so artistic loving husband. 


I just didn’t get all the hype.  


 There behind a bullet-proof glass hung a 30x21 inch portrait. Don’t get me wrong, It was a lovely portrait, but there are some pretty spectacular pieces of artwork in the Louvre, some so large it takes up an entire wall. And yet, this pretty small painting is one of the most visited? Really!  


What made this one so special?  


Well friends, this is why when you visit a museum you should hire a guide. But, hey, I like research!  And if you don’t wish to read all of this, just scroll down to the video at the bottom of the page. So here goes! 


The Artist

Although Da Vinci wrote he never completed a painting, it is undeniably a skilled piece of art. Da Vinci used a technique called sfumato which softens the transition between colors. The technique is a slow process. DaVinci painted one layer, waited for it to dry, and repeat. What you see today took him three years. He described the technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” As an artist, I found comfort to learn that through x-ray technology it revealed that DaVinci reworked the painting several times, adjusting the size of her face and direction of her gaze. One layer showed her wearing a headdress and hairpins with pearls! 

The Painting was part of the Royal Collection, starting with King Francis I; Da Vinci was a member of his court. It hung on the walls of French palaces until the revolution, had a brief stint with Napoléon before it became part of the Louvre in 1797. 

Da Vinci himself propagated the paintings popularity. The term Renaissance man is synonymous with Da Vinci. He was a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, and sculptor. Since his death in the early part of the 16th century, he has been revered as a genius. 


The Subject 

No one really knows for sure who is the mysterious woman with the half smile, but the majority of art historians and scholars believe her to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of a wealthy silk merchant from Florentine. The fact that the model cannot conclusively be identified has only added to her enigma. One theory is she may have been Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, another is the painting was actually a self-portrait; Leo disguising himself as some sort of riddle. The Romantic era of the 19th century only perpetuated the lure of this woman…or man for that matter.   One French writer described the Mona Lisa as a “strange being…her gaze promising unknown pleasures.” People see what they want see! 


The Scandal

When the Mona Lisa went missing on the morning of August 21, 1911, the 16th century painting became famous overnight. This event is what catapulted the little Italian girl to stardom. Before the theft, the Mona Lisa was not a well-known piece of artwork, at least outside the artworld. According to the book, The Crimes of Paris, it took 28 hours until anyone noticed it was gone. After the Louvre announced the theft, it became a worldwide sensation and conspiracies were flying like wet paint. The American tycoon and art lover, J.P. Morgan was a suspect, as well as Pablo Picasso. With tensions rising between France and Germany culminating into WWI, some thought the Kaiser was behind the heist. Visitors were then flocking to the Louvre to see the blank wall that had become a “mark of shame” for Parisians. 

Two years later, the painting was returned to the Louvre after one of the thieves, Vincenzo Perguggia,( there were three) tried to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. He was arrested and served seven months in prison.

What I’ve learned from all of this is It seems some things never change. As they say, (I always wonder who “they” are) there is no bad publicity. Talent is important, but scandal is what makes you famous! 

 I hope someday soon I will be able to visit with Mona once again. I’ll appreciate her more now that I know her story.