Why Mona Lisa Painting is Famous
We’ve all seen it—Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is an undeniably iconic image that has captured the interests of many throughout the centuries.
Mona Lisa resides in the world-famous Louvre in Paris, France, where it sits behind bullet-proof glass for robust protection. It draws thousands of visitors every day, and its been on permanent display in the museum since 1797. Very recently, in 2019, a new queuing method was introduced to manage the heavy crowds; after waiting in line, groups can only see the painting for roughly thirty seconds.
So, most people are aware of it due to its fame and recognize the painting when they see it. But, interestingly, while it is an interesting enough composition, there are also comments questioning its significance. Occasionally, you’ll hear something along the lines of “Why is this so famous? It’s just a portrait. I don’t get it.” And, it is a good question that brings up fascianting history. We’re going to dive in some of the most interesting facts about the painting and its long history to try and understand its amazing fame.
A Bit About the Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
While it’s not necessarily directly related to the fame of the Mona Lisa, the artist himself is interesting to consider. His name is synonymous with the Renaissance itself, and his rivalry with the also-famous Michelangelo is one of the most famous in art history.
During the Renaissance, he was quite well known for both his talent and charisma. He was a polymath, defined as someone whose knowledge spans many subjects. Among these areas of expertise for Leonardo were mechanics, anatomy, art, and engineering; he was as much a scientist as an artist. Some of his proposed inventions include futuristic (for the time) war machines, flying machines, musical instruments, and more. Most of these never came to fruition, but nonetheless, his detailed sketches of his ideas are works of art themselves. He enjoyed fame and prestige during his lifetime, unlike many artists.
An In-Depth Look at Mona Lisa
So, we know that Leonardo da Vinci is a whole subject by himself. But, let’s dive back into the topic of this article: why Mona Lisa painting is famous. Let’s start by talking about the formal elements and history of its creation.
The painting probably depicts Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman, although the family never received the portrait. Da Vinci painted it roughly around 1503–1506, but some people believe it could’ve been worked on as late as 1517. It was eventually acquired by King Francis I of France, and now belongs to the French Republic itself.
The subject in the painting sits in a reserved posture, gazing out at the viewer, and appears remarkably life-like—this is owed to the artist’s skill in a technique known as sfumato, or creating form without drawing outlines. She therefore appears mysterious, hazy, and softly shaped—she feels very delicate yet still real.
The painting is also somewhat revolutionary for its time as it was one of the very first to depict a sitter in front of an imaginary landscape. He drew the landscape from an aerial perspective, which was also rather unusual. Additionally, a subtle choice by da Vinci is to place the horizon line rather high-up on the composition, at the same level of her eyes, which subtly ties the background in with the figure and further emphasizes her mysterious gaze.
Formally, there are several impressive and unique features: the subject’s enigmatic expression, atmospheric illusionism, and the soft modeling of form. She strongly resembles Renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary—who, at the time, was viewed as an ideal of womanhood.
This is the only portrait by da Vinci whose authenticity has never been questioned. However, the dates of creation and reasons for which it was painted remain up for discussion. There is also a debate over the possibility of two versions—this is because Raphael made a sketch of the Mona Lisa, but included columns in the background, which is not part of the known composition.
The Legacy of the Mona Lisa
In addition to its fame, the Mona Lisa is undeniably one of the most valuable paintings in existence. It holds the highest known insurance valuation in history at $100 million in 1962—this is equal to $660 million in 2019. In fact, there’s been a few proposals for France to sell the painting to ease the national debt, but this violates French heritage laws.
Another point of consideration for why Mona Lisa painting is famous is the scandal associated with it. In 1911, it was stolen from the Louvre by Italian patriot Vincenzo Peruggia, who believed the painting should belong in an Italian museum because da Vinci was Italian. It was recovered three years later in 1914—the theft spent six months and jail but was hailed as a hero by many Italians. This theft dramatically increased the fame of the painting, particularly outside of the art world.
Additionally, during events such as the French Revolution and World War II, the painting was relocated from the Louvre to protect it from damage and theft. Over the years if its display, it’s been subject to attempted vandalism, including slashings and objects such as rocks being thrown at it. Despite these attempts and its age, Mona Lisa remains in good condition.
Nowadays, we consider it to be an archetypal image of the Renaissance. It was well-known while it was being painted, and da Vinci’s contemporaries—particularly Raphael—would visit his studio and borrow some of the elements, such as the unique three-quarter pose. Early commentators were impressed with its realism, but discussion evolved to praise its mysterious and romantic feel. In fact, the term “Mona Lisa Smile” has also become something of its own—its used in books, movies, and other pop culture to reference that enigmatic smile of the Italian noblewoman.
Its been further launched to fame by parodies by later artists—namely, the Dadaists and Surrealists made caricatures and parodies, making its image all the more ubiquitous in pop culture. During the 20th century, it was said that it was reproduced in 300 paintings and 2,000 advertisements. Apparently, the Mona Lisa was more or less just another work by a famous artist, but the scandals associated with it in the last century have kept bringing it back into the spotlight.
It’s really an interesting topic as to why this painting has generated such an immense amount of conversation for several centuries. What do you think—do you agree with these reasons for why Mona Lisa painting is famous?