The Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting in the world. Worth an estimated $830 million today, its reputation precedes it. The next time you’re at the Louvre, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself stuck behind a clamouring crowd, with everyone desperate to get a peek at her famous smile. But why all the fuss? What made this particular painting so sought-after, especially considering that it was little-known before the 20th century? Let’s look into the history (and mystery) behind this masterpiece.
Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa sometime between 1503 and 1519. It is a portrait of a woman—shown from the waist up—who is holding her hands in her lap and looking at the viewer with a hint of a smile. This smile has been its focal point and the topic of speculation for centuries.
The subject of the painting is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, who was the wife of a cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. The reason behind the commission is unknown, although some assume it was made to mark the purchase of a new house or the birth of a new child (after the loss of another years prior). Nothing about the woman’s clothing represents wealth or status.
However, the painting did not seem to have made it into the commissioners’ hands. After da Vinci died in 1519, it went into King Francois I of France’s collection, where it stayed for over 200 years. Somewhere between 1787 and 1789 during the French Revolution, the citizens of France claimed the painting. After hanging in Napoleon’s bedroom for a period of time, it was eventually placed in the Louvre Museum in 1804.
Although the Mona Lisa was already known as a magnificent piece of art (after all, you don’t get a spot in the Louvre for nothing), it wasn’t until 1911 that it truly emerged into the spotlight.
On August 20, 1911, a man entered the Louvre, pulled the Mona Lisa off the wall, put it in a storage closet, and retrieved it the next morning while wearing an employee’s uniform for cover.
A day later, the museum’s staff realized what had happened, and the news spread like wildfire. The French people, who loved their art with a fierce passion, were furious. They demanded the capture of the thief and the return of the painting. The theft soon became front-page news all over the world. The Louvre was crawling with detectives, all methods of transportation were searched at checkpoints across France, and wanted posters featuring Mona Lisa’s smile were circulated around the country. Pablo Picasso was even arrested and held as a suspect. Thousands of visitors swarmed the museum when it reopened a week later to look at the empty space where the stolen painting had once hung.
Now you know how a painting once considered to be a simple piece of art became shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Everyone was wondering what was so special about this particular painting that someone would go to such lengths to steal it from one of the most famous museums in the world.
Sightings of the piece were reported from places as far away as Brazil and Japan, but it wasn’t until over two years later that the Mona Lisa was finally found. It turns out that it had never left France. Instead, the thief, identified as Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman, had left it in a small apartment just outside of Paris for safekeeping.
Peruggia was caught after attempting to sell the piece in 1913 when the men who agreed to buy it reported the theft to the police instead.
“I fell a victim to her smile and feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening,” he later admitted during questioning. “I fell in love with her.”
The recovered painting was miraculously unharmed. It was returned to the Louvre in early 1914, but the entire ordeal had catapulted it to stardom. Over 120,000 people visited the Louvre within the first two days of its return. Today, it continues to command the attention of locals and tourists alike. Many questions arose about the painting’s history.
What was the meaning behind Mona Lisa’s smile? Well, historians are still hard at work trying to find the answer. The Mona Lisa currently receives over 8 million visitors per year.