The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa, a half-length portrait by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, resides in The Louvre museum in Paris, France, and is one of the most popular works of art to date. The subject of the painting is Lisa Gherardini, wife to Francesco del Gioncondo, and it is estimated da Vinci painted the portrait between 1503 and 1506, with revisions being made before its completion by 1517. Lisa’s expression, along with her pose and the surrounding environment are some factors contributing to continued fascination and study of the work. The subject’s pose is reserved, her hands crossed on her lap, and her gaze fixed on the observer. Lisa’s looks are thought to be similar to that of the Virgin Mary, who was at the time an ideal of womanhood. There is no visible facial hair, for it may have been thought of as unsightly for women of the Renaissance. According to French engineer Pascal Cotte, however, the image underneath the layers of paint in the piece, found through ultra high-resolution scans, seem to show that Leonardo gave the subject visible eyebrows and eyelashes in previous revisions of the work.

While the Mona Lisa is a very popular piece of art, it is and has been a target for art theft. As was the case on August 21, 1911, when the painting was stolen from the Louvre. Louis Béroud, a painter, walked into a section of the museum where the Mona Lisa had been hanging only to find it gone. As the Louvre closed down for a week during the investigation, two men, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and famed artist Pablo Picasso, were implicated in and later exonerated of the theft; the real thief, a museum employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, had taken the painting and hid it in his apartment, hoping to bring it back to his home country of Italy where, as a sign of patriotism, he felt it should be shown. While it was assumed that another man, Eduardo de Valfierno, was the mastermind behind the heist and planned to sell the painting in the U.S., Peruggia was caught trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. After Peruggia’s arrest, the painting was shown in the Uffizi Gallery for over two weeks before being returned to the Louvre in January 1914.

The Mona Lisa has also been a victim of vandalism: one vandal threw acid at the painting in 1956; later that year, another vandal threw a rock at it, damaging a small speck of pigment and requiring restoration. The installation of bulletproof glass to protect the work was timely, for in 1974, a woman sprayed red paint at it during its display at the Tokyo National Museum. Despite that attack and one by a Russian woman throwing a teacup at the painting in 2009, the piece was undamaged.

Due to the scandals of theft and vandalism, the painting saw a surge in fame. During it’s 1962-63 U.S. tour, the painting saw 1.7 million viewers in New York queue up to see it in passing. In 2014, the Louvre saw 9.3 million people, 80 percent of them there only to see the Mona Lisa, according to former director Henri Loyrette. When it comes down to the financial worth of the Mona Lisa, its estimated worth was $100 million when assessed for insurance before the 1962-63 tour. Adjusted for inflation in 2015 figures, the $100 million assessment skyrockets to an astronomical $782 million, making it the most valued painting in the world.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa set standards for portrait artists like Raphael, who frequented Da Vinci’s workshop and used his techniques in works like Young Woman with Unicorn (c. 1506) and Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1514-15). The Mona Lisa and its rich history continued to inspire others around the world, including the likes of Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and carries on to artists and art fans of today.

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