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Why is the Mona Lisa so famous (and why is it even in France)?

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Why is the Mona Lisa so famous (and why is it even in France)?
A street art poster, made by French artist Big Ben, depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa holding a mobile phone - this would be one way to avoid the crowds at the Louvre. Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

Being lauded as either the greatest artwork in the world or the most overrated tourist attraction in France, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa does not struggle to get attention. But why is this small portrait so famous?

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Paris' Louvre museum has recently announced that the Mona Lisa painting is to get its own room, a move that is at least partly in reaction to increasing complaints about the artwork being overrated, while tourists struggle to see it in the small, crowded space.

There aren't many paintings that get a room of their own, so just what is it about Mona Lisa (or La Joconde as she is known in France) that attracts so many millions of tourists each year - and should you bother going to see her?

Why is it in France?

Let's start with why the painting is in France in the first place, since both painter and subject are Italian (although Italy at that time was still a collection of city states which would not be unified into the modern country until 1861). 

In short, Mona Lisa is in France because her creator Leonardo da Vinci travelled with her, and he was in France when he died in 1519. The reason that he was in France is that he spent the last years of his life working on special commissions for king François I. He died at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, in France's Loire Valley. 

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Upon his death Mona Lisa was taken into the French royal collection and various descendants of François I hung her in their palaces until the French Revolution happened in 1793.

After the Revolution, with the exception of a brief stint in Napoleon's palace, the painting entered the collection of the newly-created Louvre gallery which - in the spirit of revolutionary equality - was opened up to the people so that they too could enjoy great art.

Various requests over the years - some polite, others less so - from Italy to return the painting have been firmly declined by the French state. 

When did it get famous?

In the 18th and 19th centuries Leonardo's painting was a popular exhibit among museum visitors, but didn't have any particular fame and wasn't regarded as any more special than the numerous other artworks exhibited there.

Although some academic interest in the painting's subject - most commonly thought to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo - stirred in the 19th century, her real fame didn't arrive until 1911.

This is when the painting was stolen from the Louvre, a crime that became a sensation and a cause celèbre in France, even more so when the painting was finally found in 1913 after the thief had attempted to sell it in Italy.

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The fame of the painting and the crime inspired contemporary artists such as Marcel Duchamp who created a playful reproduction of Mona Lisa (complete with beard and moustache) which in turn enhanced the painting's recognition. The artistic trend continued with everyone from Andy Warhol to the ubiquitous student posters of Mona Lisa smoking a joint.

Former chairman of the French Communist Party Robert Hue views moustachioed Mona Lisa by dadaist painter Marcel Duchamp, lent out by his party for the first time for an exhibition in January 2002. Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

A tour of the painting to the US in 1963 and to Japan in 1974 further enhanced the celebrity status.

21st century

These days it's perhaps accurate to say that the painting is simply famous because it's famous. As the best-known piece of art in the world it's automatically on many tourists' 'must see' list when they come to Paris - and a lot of tourists come to Paris (roughly 44 million per year).

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Meanwhile the Louvre is the most-visited museum in the world, attracting roughly 9 million visitors a year.

Although some visitors find the painting itself disappointing (it's very small, just 77cm by 53cm) the most common complaint is that the room is too crowded - many people report that it's so jammed with visitors that it's hard to even see the picture never mind spend time contemplating the artwork.

Should I go and see it?

It really depends on what you like - if your taste in art is firmly in the more modern camp then you probably won't find that this painting particularly speaks to you. You will, however, find a lot in Paris that is much more to your taste, running from the Musée d'Orsay (mostly art created between 1848 and 1914) to the Pompidou Centre (featuring contemporary and experimental art) and much, much more.

If, however, Renaissance art is your bag then you'll struggle to find a finer example of it than Mona Lisa, with her beautiful brushwork, detailed and intriguing background and realistic presentation.

If you do decide to visit, then be prepared for the gallery to be crowded - the Louvre now operates on a pre-booking basis but even having a pre-booked ticket won't save you from the crowds.

If possible try to avoid the summer and school holidays and prioritise weekdays over weekends - the early morning or late evening slots tend to be a little quieter than others, but you're going to have to be prepared to share her with many other art-lovers.

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