On the eve of its 500th anniversary (in 2003), the story of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
Is it the world's greatest painting, as well as the most famous? Curators at the Louvre, where the Mona Lisa is displayed, don't like such labels, states Sassoon (History/Univ. of London; 100 Years of Socialism, 1997); in fact, the painting is a mixed blessing for the museum. Despite strict prohibitions, visitors insist on photographing it, and under no circumstances can it be withdrawn from display, for fear of public outcry. Many visitors are interested in no other work of art. The Mona Lisa is universally recognized, revered, distorted, and parodied. But unlike Mickey Mouse, it is clearly a product of high culture, part of the accepted canon of art and much admired in Leonardo's time. Sassoon discusses the artist's innovative use of sfumato, a technique that gives a “smoky” texture to backgrounds and an aura of mystery to eyes. The lady's mystery is further enhanced by her uncertain identity, which art historians have never pinned down. Why does she smile? Sassoon suggests that Leonardo provided entertainment for his model as she posed, but still the enigma of that smile, what she knows that you will never know, cannot be explained. In Napoleonic France she was seen as a bold new republican, casting off the pretensions of nobility, looking at you frankly and directly. Almost simultaneously, English and French writers began canonizing her: she was a courtesan, perhaps, or Leonardo's plain-clothes Madonna, or both. Then, reproduced in engravings, her fame spread worldwide; by the 20th century she was being used to sell cosmetics, chocolate, champagne, wigs, coffee, motorcycles, olives, cigars, and false teeth.
There may be more information here than most readers want, but Sassoon admirably summarizes the famous lady's mysterious past.