You know her, you've seen her image countless times, and you're aware of her close relationship with Beyonce and Jay-Z. But if you've ever stared at the (sort of?) smiling lady's face and wondered why in the world she's considered such a masterpiece, you're not alone. Art is after all, a subjective experience, yet the world is seemingly unanimously obsessed with Mona Lisa. So why is she such a big deal?
The Origin Story
First thing's first: Yes, Mona Lisa was a real person. And while scholars have debated who that person was for centuries, most believe the seated subject of Leonardo da Vinci's famous work was Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, aka La Gioconda. The Florentine lady's wealthy silk merchant husband may have commissioned the portrait to celebrate the impending birth of their child, but for some unexplained reason, the Giocondo family never actually came into possession of the painting. The pregnancy theory does add up though, if you believe scholars who speculate the subject's sly smile and loose clothing are a nod to motherhood on the horizon. Most historians agree that da Vinci started the painting in 1503 and continued to work on it for about four years.
The Technical Side of Things
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but most art experts — whether they fawn over Mona Lisa or not — agree that da Vinci's painting includes some revolutionary techniques that make it technically impressive. The style of the painting in itself is the most famous example of da Vinci's signature sfumato method, which blends colors and tones in a soft, shaded way without hard lines or borders ("sfumare" is the Italian word for "shade," and "fumare" means "smoke").
Da Vinci incorporated another pioneering technique into his creation: the integration of an imaginary landscape and the use of aerial perspective. Mona Lisa is seated in open space, with decidedly nonspecific mountains, bridges and winding paths behind her in the distance. The dreamy landscape is a departure from the realistic backgrounds artists of the time painted into their portraits, and many have associated the serene natural elements and the subject's calm expression with a greater commentary on the human connection to nature.
The Mona Lisa is also one of the earliest examples of an Italian portrait portraying a subject at "half-length"; the arms and hands are displayed, but they don't touch the frame, and she's sitting in a chair.
And of course, there's that creepy but iconic characteristic of Mona Lisa's eyes seemingly following the viewer wherever they go. The weirdly intimate attribute is a result of da Vinci's mastery of shadows and light, and while he wasn't the first one to implement the technique, many people refer to the illusion as the "Mona Lisa Effect."
The Theft Heard 'Round the World
While Mona Lisa definitely has a lot going for her in the way of artistic skill level, thematic complexity and unique presentation, she definitely developed the majority of her fan following after an infamous incident at the Louvre.
On Aug. 21, 1911, three young Italian handymen slipped out of the side entrance of the famous French museum with Mona Lisa in tow. The fact that it took 26 hours for anyone to notice she was missing perhaps speaks to the low level of fame the painting had up to that point. Even though da Vinci had created the piece in the early 1500s, critics didn't really take notice until the 1860s, and even then, the positive accolades were few and far between, and exclusively within the art world itself.
But once the portrait went missing, the world took notice in a major way. Newspapers all over the world printed headlines about its disappearance, and people started concocting all kinds of conspiracy theories about the likely robbers (American tycoon J.P. Morgan and famed artist Pablo Picasso were both considered suspects). The Louvre shut down for a week, and when it reopened its doors, scores of people flocked to the museum to see the "mark of shame" (aka the empty spot on the wall) for themselves.
It took 28 months for the lead thief, Vincenzo Perugia, to attempt a re-sale of their stolen merchandise, and an art gallery owner quickly confirmed the item's authenticity with a glance at the stamp on the back. The dealer said he'd make sure Perugia got a reward, and instead, sent the police after him (Perugia pled guilty and served just eight months in prison). And while the painting was returned to its rightful home, people around the world continued to chatter about its disappearance. Over time, they just kept chattering, and these days, Mona Lisa is one of the most famous women in the world, rivaling Beyonce herself.