The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, is considered the most famous painting in the world. But until the early 20th century, when the painting was stolen, the Mona Lisa did not enjoy such fame.
The painting is thought to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florence silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. It is in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel, and was painted between 1503 and 1506, though da Vinci may have continued working on it as late as 1517. It was acquired by King Francis I of France and has been on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797.
It was only in the 19th century that da Vinci began to be revered as a genius, and the painting’s popularity grew from the middle of the 19th century when French intelligentsia developed a theme that the painting was somehow mysterious and a representation of the femme fatal.
In 1911, Italian patriot and Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia entered the building during regular hours, hid in a broom closet, and walked out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. Peruggia believed da Vinci’s painting should have been owned and on display in an Italian museum. The painting was missing for two years until Peruggia tried to sell it and was exposed. The theft and subsequent return were reported worldwide, leading to the painting’s fame.
It is not surprising that the Mona Lisa is the most reproduced and parodied works of art of the contemporary world, but you may be interested that the painting apparently held a special place in Leonardo da Vinci’s estimation—a fact that at least two (and possibly three) copies were painted by the master himself.
In 1965 and 2012 two copies came to light which may be authentic.
The so-called “Isleworth Mona Lisa” was discovered early in the 20th century by Hugh Blaker, an English art critic and collector who purchased it from the estate of a Somerset nobleman. After he bought the painting, he took it to his studio in Isleworth, London, hence the name.
Blaker later sold the portrait for a vast sum to an American collector, Henry F. Pulitzer, of St. Louis. Pulitzer spent years researching and attempting to authenticate the work as an original Leonardo. In 1966 he published a book on the subject titled Where is the Mona Lisa? After his death the painting was passed on to his girlfriend and upon her death it was purchased by a consortium of Swiss based investors who have kept it in a secret Swiss location for the past 45 years.
The Isleworth Mona Lisa (right) appears to depict a younger woman than the Louvre version (left). It also answers questions raised by Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) who 40 years after da Vinci’s death described the Mona Lisa as “unfinished” in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. As you can see, the Isleworth Mona Lisa does indeed feature an unfinished background.
This version is easy to distinguish from the others because the woman is depicted with red sleeves. While this version was for centuries considered to be a work of da Vinci himself, since its restoration in 2012 it is considered by some to be a work by one of da Vinci’s pupils, painted while the Louvre version was being painted. According to Wikipedia, this version of the painting is by Salaí (1480 – 1524) or Melzi (1493 – 1572). This conclusion has been called into question by others, including more authoritative sources.
Before a 1962–63 tour to the US, the value of the Louvre Mona Lisa was assessed for insurance at $100 million, though a claim was never filed. Instead, more was spent on security. Adjusted for inflation using the US Consumer Price Index, $100 million in 1962 is around $782 million in 2015 making it, in practice, by far the most valued painting in the world.
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