The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

The Mona Lisa

Painting of Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is a half-length portrait painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. This portrait was started in Florence around 1503. It is thought to be of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant. Leonardo took this painting with him to France when he joined the court of the French King and after his death the painting entered King François I’s collection.

The Mona Lisa is considered to be one of the best known, the most written about and the most parodied works of art in the world. Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer who was already famous in his own lifetime.

Below is a copy of the Mona Lisa that was discovered in 2012 at as part of the Prado collection in Madrid. When the painting was cleaned, scientific analysis revealed that the copy was probably painted by another artist, probably an apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci, who sat beside Leonardo and copied his work, brush-stroke by brush-stroke. The Prado painting suggests what the Mona Lisa might look like if layers of yellowed varnish could be removed from the original. The face, especially the smile, does look slightly different but it is a close copy in many other respects and dates to a similar time. The painting cannot be considered as a workshop copy due to its careful and thorough execution, as well as its use of materials such as lapis lazuli or red lacquer, which were used by Leonardo.

La Gioconda (copia del Museo del Prado) (restaurada)

In 1911, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa painting was stolen from the Louvre. The Louvre closed for an entire week during the investigations.  The theft created a media sensation and rewards were offered. Pablo Picasso was on the original list of suspects questioned and jailed for the theft, but he was later released. After many false leads and claims, the Mona Lisa thief was caught when he attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was returned to the Louvre in 1914 and the thief, a Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia only served six months in prison for the crime.  Peruggia  was hailed for his patriotism in Italy as he claimed he wanted to return the Mona Lisa to the country that gave birth to the Mona Lisa and Leonardo. Perugia claimed, that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon and that he deserved a reward for doing his patriotic duty and returning it to its true home in Italy.

Below, the Mona Lisa is on display in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence (Italy), just before it was returned to the Louvre.

Monalisa uffizi 1913

Before the 1911 theft, the Mona Lisa was not widely known outside the art world. The nearly two year hunt across multiple continents helped to publicise the Mona Lisa to the public imagination. In 1956, the painting was damaged when a vandal threw acid at it, which provided more publicity and notoriety. That same year, a rock was thrown at the painting which left some minor damage.

Bulletproof glass was then used to protect the Mona Lisa. Which was fortunate when in 1974, a woman, upset by the museum’s policy for disabled people, sprayed red paint at the Mona Lisa. More recently in 2009, a Russian woman, upset for being denied French citizenship, threw a ceramic teacup at the famous painting.

JFK, Marie-Madeleine Lioux, André Malraux, Jackie, L.B. Johnson, unveiling Mona Lisa at National Gallery of Art

The painting has been exhibited in New York City, Washington, D.C, Tokyo and Moscow with great success. Before the US tour, in 1962 the painting was assessed for insurance at $100 million. In today’s terms that translates to approximately $800m, considered to be the most valued painting in the world.

In art terms the Mona Lisa is the earliest Italian portrait to focus closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait and set the standard for future artists. Depicting the subject in front of an imaginary landscape, Leonardo was one of the first painters to use perspective in this way. Da Vinci pioneered a shadowing technique at the corners of her lips and the corners of her eyes which give her an extremely lifelike appearance and look of amusement.

Leonardo’s masterpiece had a huge influence during his lifetime and continues to influence and attract lovers of history and art in our lifetime.

Leonardo da Vinci - Mona Lisa (detail) - WGA12713

Essential Facts:

  • Title:           Mona Lisa
  • Artist:         Leonardo da Vinci
  • Created:     1503
  • Periods:      High Renaissance
  • Subject:      Not certain, possibly Lisa Gherardini
  • Media:        Oil paint on poplar wood
  • Dimensions: 77 cm x 53 cm
  • Museum:    The Louvre (since 1797)

Artist:

  • Name:               Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci
  • Born:                 1452 – Vinci, Republic of Florence (present-day Italy)
  • Died:                  1519 (aged 67) – Amboise, Kingdom of France
  • Masterpieces:
    • Mona Lisa
    • The Last Supper
    • The Vitruvian Man
    • Lady with an Ermine
  • Movement:      High Renaissance

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“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci

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Photo Credit 1) By Sambodhi sakhare (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) Robert L. Knudsen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 5) Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons