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How the Mona Lisa became so overrated

No, it’s not just the smile.

Mona Lisa, smiling.
Getty Images

Spiro P.’s Yelp review of the Louvre, posted in 2010, seems like artistic blasphemy. But in some ways, the disappointment is familiar to anybody who’s been there:

The curator of the Louvre should take down all the "Mona Lisa" signs and promote other works. The "Mona Lisa" is a painting of status and nothing more.

So Spiro P. didn’t like it. Is there at least a cynic’s case for the "Mona Lisa’s" fame? Why did she become the most famous painting in the world while other pieces fail to excite the world’s coffee mug makers?

YouTube is filled with videos that assess the artistic uniqueness of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. But if you find the "Mona Lisa" underwhelming — or the critical analyses unconvincing — her fame can seem as enigmatic as her legendary smile (and phrases like "legendary smile" might make you roll your eyes).

As the above video shows, there is a logical case for just how Mona became ... Mona. And the story involves one surprisingly influential critic and a theft.

A largely forgotten critic made "Mona Lisa" a star

Walter Pater, critic.

Many writers have chronicled the exciting and infamous story of how Vincenzo Peruggia stole the "Mona Lisa" in 1911. (This Smithsonian piece is particularly vivid.) But why did Peruggia target the "Mona Lisa" in the first place? The answer might lie with a critic named Walter Pater (1839–1894).

Pater was an influential English critic and scholar who defined the Renaissance for his Victorian audience, chiefly in the book of the same name (which you can read here). That book had a breakout hit: Pater’s essay on the "Mona Lisa," which is a gloriously overblown ode to the painting. Here’s the overstuffed paragraph at the center of it (you may want to just skim it; he compares Mona to an eternal vampire):

She is older than the rocks among which she sits like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.

This is sickly sweet writing, but people loved it — Oscar Wilde praised the writing, and generations of writers followed Pater’s lead, including famed French critics like Hippolyte Taine. But for many English-speaking readers, Pater’s description of "Mona Lisa" became iconic.

His work spread and elevated "Mona Lisa" in the pantheon. References to Pater’s work popped up in guidebooks to the Louvre and reading clubs in Paducah. When Mona was recovered after the robbery, publications like the New York Times referenced Pater’s essay, and it showed up in Pater’s 1894 obituary.

But while Pater’s essay established "Mona Lisa" as a notable work in the art world, she didn’t immediately become the iconic, memeable, inescapable icon we know today. An 1880 piece about the Louvre gave more attention to da Vinci’s other masterpiece "The Last Supper," as did a 1900 guidebook about the Louvre. In 1907, a vandal targeted a picture by Ingres, not the "Mona Lisa," and in 1910 another article called her just the Louvre’s second most famous painting.

There’s no doubt that Mona was famous by the 1900s, thanks in large part to Pater. By the late 1800s, speculation about the subject's enigmatic smile was common. Even conspiracy theories emerged in the 1900s, when people speculated she’d secretly been taken to America. That chatter was paired with real precautions — after the Ingres slashing, Mona was put under glass just in case another vandal went on the offensive.

But despite the occasional riff on Mona’s appearance (or mystifying popularity), she didn’t clearly own the title of world’s most famous painting. Pater gave Mona a platform — and a man named Vincenzo Peruggia took her from it.

A thief made "Mona Lisa" a legend

Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa
Vincenzo Peruggia stole the "Mona Lisa."
Getty Images

The August 21, 1911, theft of the "Mona Lisa" has spawned its own mythology. (Those looking to dive deep can check out documentaries like Mona Lisa Is Missing.)

But the surface story is simple: Former Louvre employee Peruggia wanted to restore the "Mona Lisa" to her native Italy. He said it was a matter of national pride (though it seems like profit was a pretty good motive, too). So he went into the Louvre, hid, and snuck the painting out underneath his coat after the museum had closed. It took a day for the Louvre to even notice, and for two years Peruggia kept the painting before being caught when trying to unload it on a gallery in Florence.

The intervening manhunt and press fervor served as a giant ad campaign for the painting. Suddenly, a notable but not universally known painting was the subject of excited headlines and ecstatic copy (which often referenced Pater). People couldn’t necessarily see the "Mona Lisa" while it was hiding in Peruggia’s apartment, but they could easily read about how it was the greatest painting ever made.

Art fans and the general public became equally aware of Mona’s missing smile. The New York Times used the painting as a linchpin for a history of all stolen art, it published a 1900s take on fanfiction in which two authors speculated how they would have stolen "Mona Lisa," and the paper of record even printed conspiracy theories that Mona had never been stolen at all.

When she did return to the Louvre in 1914 — after a brief show in Florence — Mona had gone from art fan highlight to worldwide heroine. The painting appeared splashed on front pages and became the instant subject of parodies and, of course, more prose. Thanks to Pater’s prolix, but beloved, essay, an art thief with a daring plan, and a media happy to publicize Mona’s unexpected journey, da Vinci’s portrait became something bigger than a piece of art — it became Art itself for a great number of people.

The cynic’s case for the "Mona Lisa"

This case for the "Mona Lisa’s" ubiquity as a result of overblown criticism, headline-happy newspapers, and theft is one that seems to ignore the virtues of the painting. Today, she feels like something from a postmodern novel — a painting that’s famous for being famous. But really, that cynical perspective can work in tandem with a dreamier take on the portrait’s charms.

The things that made Mona so appealing to Pater, Peruggia, and the press are the things that make her appealing to aesthetically minded art fans — a sense of mystery, an indefinable mood, and a timelessness unbound by da Vinci’s period. And that’s the only way she can live up to the expectations of Yelpers like Spiro P. — by being allowed to embody her full story, on and off the canvas.

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