Top 6 Interesting Facts about Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa is obviously the painting most talked about in the world. It may come as surprising once you find yourself in front of it: it is small, the colors have gone dull, and is definitely neither the most impressive nor the most interesting painting in the world, yet alone in the Louvre.
Yet, one fact stands still: it has been fascinating the western world and beyond for centuries. Want to find out what makes Mona Lisa special? In this article, I have compiled 7 facts that make it to my mind the superstar painting it is today.
As a Parisian student, it may come at a surprise that I did not visit the Louvres until very late (I was 17 years-old). Even though I am passionate about art, I think I always put off my first encounter with the Louvre (and obviously the Mona Lisa) in my younger years because I always had a mixed relationship with the mainstream and particularly the universally critically acclaimed when it comes to art.
And when I found myself face to face with Mona Lisa, I remember thinking distinctively that this painting is definitely not an awe inducing painting at first sight. And yet, the painting has been for centuries at the center of the attention of the Western world, with figures that speak for themselves: when the painting was exhibited in New York, 1,6 million viewers went to see it. During Mona Lisa’s time in Tokyo, the crowd was so dense in front of the painting that the museum’s staff was forced to create an exceptional rule: each viewer was to be allowed only 10 seconds in front of the painting.
The painting has also become a staple of pop culture references, constantly referenced in merchandising and advertisement with famous reproductions by Andy Warhol or Salvador Dali.
I have tried my best in this article to lay out for you the 6 reasons which make in my mind the Mona Lisa the most talked about painting in the world. To discover them, keep reading!
1. Mona Lisa has a tormented and criminal history
If you have been to the Louvre, you have probably noticed the extremely heavy security system around the painting itself. In addition to the numerous security guards in the room, the painting is famously protected behind an impressive bullet-proof glass window. Many people believe these are standard security protection measures but the truth is, they are very specific to the Mona Lisa, and are due to its particularly tormented and criminal history.
Indeed, the painting was stolen in 1911 and disappeared for two years. Experts thought it was irremediably lost, and the painting then acquired an aura of mystery and fame. The case was solved when police caught Vincenzo Peruggia trying to sell it to a private buyer. Vincenzo Peruggia was an employee of the Louvre; he claimed he stole the painting because he thought it should be returned to its native Italy home, from which Vincenzo Peruggia was also from. He still manage to hide one of the most famous paintings of the world at his apartment for two whole years without anyone having any idea.
1956 was another tumultuous year for the painting. Mona Lisa was targetted twice by vandals this year : one visitor seriously damaged the painting by throwing acid at it, and another visitor threw a rock at it. This is when decision was made by the Louvre to protect permanently the painting behind a bulletproof glass.
2. Mona Lisa is the most expensive painting of all time, and its value keeps increasing with time.
As the object of such mystery and enigma, it comes as no surprise that Mona Lisa is the most expensive painting of all times. The painting was sent in 1962 and 1963 on an unprecedented world tour during which it was exhibited in Tokyo and New York. For insurance purposes, the painting was assessed as valuing 100 million dollars. Nowadays, the painting has tremendously increased in value, and is estimated in 2019 between 1 and 2 billion dollars.
As a reminder, until today in 2019, the most expensive painting ever sold is another Leonardo da vinci painting, Salvator Mundi, which was sold in November 2017 for 450 million dollars to the current ministry of culture in Saudi Arabia, prince Badr bin Abdullah al Saud.
The second most expensive painting ever sold is Interchange by Willem de Kooning, sold for 317 million dollars in September 2015.
And the third most expensive painting ever sold was The Card players by Paul Cezanne, sold to the State of Quatar for 278 million dollars.
3. Mona Lisa’s smile has been the subject of extraordinarily attention
Mona Lisa’s smile is usually at the center of debates surrounding the painting. “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues; you can tell by the way she smiles” famously said Bob Dylan about the painting. Halfway between sadness and joy, her half-smile is the subject of constant interpretation by art critics.
Leonardo Da Vinci played on optical illusion to create such a particular facial expression – Mona Lisa’s eyes are painted in such a manner than they seem to follow you in the room. Next time you find yourself in the Louvre, try moving around the painting. Everywhere where you will be standing, if you move around, you will feel the eyes of the painting on you.
4. Mona Lisa’s aura of mystery remains untouched
“With all due respect, the Mona Lisa is overrated” famously said Paulo Coelho. This quote illustrates the ambiguous relationship that a lot of people develop with the Mona Lisa. On the one hand, they are bound to acknowledge that this painting is neither the most impressive nor the most interesting painting in the world, let alone in the Louvre. However, people are drawn in by the hype surrounding it, and are attracted to it like magnets, to find themselves ultimately disappointed when they come to face it.
The mystery of Mona Lisa’s hype and aura remains untouched today. I was reading yesterday that in Spain, a famous cardiologist and his team recently published an article in the very serious review Mayo Clinic Proceesings diagnosing her with hypothyroidia. The team basically spent hours observing Mona Lisa on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, and were able to diagnose her based on the complexion of her skin and the state of her hair. The condition they diagnosed was hypothyroidia, a malfunction of the thyroid. This example, as absurd as it may sound, highlights how Mona Lisa continuesly attracts a considerable amount of attention, from musicians, artists, art critics, tourists to members of the medical corp.
For some, Mona Lisa’s mystery is part of what makes it an extraordinary painting. Iconic director Stanley Kubrick famously compared Mona Lisa to his famously enigmatic film 2001: A space odyssey, and said: “how could be possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas ‘the lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover’. This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.”
5. When art buffs enter the room in which Mona Lisa is exhibited, they usually turn their back on the painting
When art buffs enter the room in which Mona Lisa is exhibited, they usually turn their back on the painting. Why, you will ask me? Well, because Mona Lisa is not the only painting displayed in the room! Opposing to it stands the biggest painting displayed in the Louvre, and one of the most interesting too: The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. Veronese, just like Leonardo Da Vinci, is an Italian master painter.
In his majestic painting that faces Mona Lisa, Paolo Veronese depicts one of the most emblematic scenes of the New Testament, that happened during the wedding feast of Cana. During this scene, Jesus famously turned water into wine, accomplishing his first miracle.
This painting is usually overlooked by the overwhelming majority of tourists and visitors who come to visit the Louvre so next time you are admiring Mona Lisa, do not forget to turn your back and enjoy the view!
6. Leonardo Da Vinci painted it using a very particular technique: sfumato
There is a sort of blurriness in Mona Lisa that has often been attributed to the aura of enigma that floats around it. Very few people know that it is actually due to a particular painting that Leonardo Da Vinci used for the first time on his Mona Lisa painting: sfumato.
Sfumato literally means smokey: it is a painting technique that uses layering in order to blur the contours of his painting and give Mona Lisa a soft and slightly ethereal feel. The point of sfumato is to create smokey, blurred lines and add mystery to a painting. This technique accounts for the spectacular contrast between the softness of Mona Lisa and the surreal, harsh background.
The background is also another thing that is usually overlooked about the Mona Lisa, because people usually focus their attention of her face: the background is actually pretty disturbing and unusual for the time, with its gloomy and surreal undertones.
There you have them, the 6 facts that make Mona Lisa special according to me! There is obviously so much to say on this painting and I had to stop somewhere. But here is one bonus fact for you: nobody is even sure of the identity of the woman who posed for Leonardo Da Vinci! Mona is a contraction of Italian word madonna (lady in english), so the painting is called Lady Lisa, which is not enough to give definitive clues about the identity of the woman posing.
Historian have however a strong hypothesis that the woman painted is Lisa Gherardini, spouse os Francesco del Giocondo. But nothing is sure about this hypothesis; we only know that Leonardo da Vinci would not separate from the painting when he was living, which adds to its aura of mystery!
Some have argued that Mona Lisa’s gender was not female, which sparked new hypothesis that Leonardo da Vinci had actually painted it by modelling it himself.
I think the words of Erol Ozan are pretty well suited to conclude this article: “In time, all great masterpieces turn into shameless creatures who laugh at their creators.”
If you want some information on how to access the Louvre museum, see below:
The Louvre museum is accessible from Rivoli street in the 1st arrondissement of Paris.
The opening hours are as follows:
Monday: open from 9 am to 6 pm
Wednesday: open from 9 am to 9.45 pm
Thursday: open from 9 am to 6 pm
Friday: open from 9 am to 9.45 pm
Saturday: open from 9 am to 6 pm
Sunday: open from 9 am to 6 pm
Be aware that the crowd surrounding the Mona Lisa is usually pretty overwhelming so if you want to admire it, I advise you to come either very early at the opening of the museum or quite late during the nocturnal openings of either wednesday or friday (wednesdays are calmer).
There also is one thing you should know if you are curious about all things French and Parisian: some locals are giving free tours to help you experience the French capital like a true Parisian. If you are willing to explore the hidden gems in each of Paris’ iconic neighborhoods and truly feel the city like a local, click here to book yours!