How History Shaped the Arts, When Art Makes the Headlines

– A blog series by Bill Rau –

This next work, we do not own – yet.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci The Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci, the Louvre.

In recent polls on what is the most famous work of art in the entire world, the Mona Lisa is consistently voted the number one, and there is absolutely no doubt that it is a masterpiece.

However, is it really the finest painting in the world?

For those of you have seen it in the flesh, I am quite sure that many of you were a little bit disappointed. I would argue that one of the many reasons it did not “wow” you is that the Louvre does not like cleaning its paintings and the work has never been cleaned.

Most people do not know this but there is a second Mona Lisa in the Prado Museum.

The Mona Lisa in the Prado Museum in Spain. The Mona Lisa, Prado Museum in Spain.

This painting hung in the famed Madrid museum for many decades. It was long believed to be a near worthless copy of DaVinci’s masterpiece. In 2012, the museum decided to clean it and during this cleaning they performed a series of infrared tests which proved that the Prado Mona Lisa was also done in the DaVinci workshop, quite likely by one of his students, but possibly with the help of the Master himself.

I want you to see how much more beautiful this one is now that it’s cleaned compared to the original hanging in the Louvre.

However, cleaned or not -there is a definitive non-art reason why the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world.

Here is also something that most people do not know. The painting was not acclaimed as Da Vinci’s masterpiece in his lifetime, or even in the subsequent three centuries after his death.

We all know of the Mona Lisa today because in 1911 it was stolen.

The Heist

If you were standing outside the Louvre on the morning of August 21, 1911, you may have noticed three men hurrying out of the museum. They would have been relatively conspicuous on a quiet Monday morning, because in Paris at that time, Sunday night was the big party night, so a lot of people were still hung over on Monday morning.

These three Italian men were not hung over. They may have been tired. They had just spent the night in a supply closet in the Louvre, and then that morning, with the Louvre still closed, they slipped out of the closet, lifted two hundred pounds of framing and protective glass off the wall, pulled a frame off the wall and removed the painted wooden panel from inside the frame. They covered this panel with a blanket and hustled off to the train station where they boarded the 7:47 AM train out of the city.

They had just stolen the Mona Lisa.

Before its theft, the Mona Lisa was not widely known outside the art world, Leonardo DaVinci painted it in 1507 but it was not until the 1860’s that critics began to talk about it as ONE of the masterworks of Renaissance painting. Even then, that assessment did not filter outside a thin slice of French intelligentsia. The Mona Lisa was certainly not the most famous painting in the Louvre. It was not even the most famous painting in the gallery where it was hung. In fact, it was twenty-eight hours before anyone even noticed it was gone.

But then when the theft was detected- it became a sensation!

Front page of Le Petit Parisien newspaper when the Mona Lisa was stolen the morning of August 21, 1911. Front page of Le Petit Parisien newspaper when the Mona Lisa was stolen the morning of August 21, 1911.

The Sensation

The Louvre announced that it had vanished, and newspapers all over the world ran headlines decrying the loss of this missing masterpiece. The New York Times itself declared that over sixty detectives were seeking the stolen Mona Lisa, and the heist had become a French national scandal.

In France, there was an undercurrent that caused an additional uproar, due to the growing concern that American millionaires were buying up the artistic legacy of Mother France and exporting them out of the country. In fact, the American art lover J.P. Morgan was suspected of commissioning the theft. On a side note, Pablo Picasso also was considered a suspect and was questioned by the police.

Amidst the hub-bub, the Louvre closed, and when it finally reopened, it was inundated with attendance. People came NOT to see the art, but to see the blank wall where the Mona Lisa had hung, the blank wall that most Parisians, felt was a mark of shame.

Meanwhile, the three Italian handymen had made a clean getaway, they had hoped to sell the Mona Lisa, but all of a sudden, it had become way too famous, and within days both the Louvre and many newspapers were offering rewards. Over two years after it was snatched, one of the thieves tried to collect the reward and brought the Mona Lisa to an art dealer in Florence, but the dealer became suspicious, and he had an Italian museum come and look at the painting, to confirm its authenticity. They told the man, okay leave it with us and we will get your reward. When the thief came back to collect his reward, the police were waiting for him. Not quite the reward he had in mind!

The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, and this painting buoyed by the infamy of its theft, went from being an obscure Renaissance work of art, familiar only to scholars, to the most famous painting in the entire world.

Now, as many of you know, the art world was shocked again when a painting that most – but not all- experts, said was by Leonardo DaVinci came up for sale at Christie’s in New York.

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo DaVinci. Salvator Mundi by Leonardo DaVinci.

Entitled Salvator Mundi, the work set a new world’s record for a work of art, selling for an astonishing $450,200,000- three times higher than any other work had ever sold for before at auction.

But don’t believe for a second that, had this painting’s more famous sister the Mona Lisa never been stolen, the da Vinci that sold at Christies would have sold for anywhere near that record-breaking price.

Next: The Power of Wealth

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