“Yo, Mona Lisa, could I get a date on Friday?” sang Wyclef Jean on the Fugees’ debut album, in 1994. Around half a century earlier, Nat King Cole had crooned about Mona Lisa as the lady with the mystic smile in an Oscar-winning song. Fast-forward to 2018, when power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z punctuated their music video filmed in the Louvre with views of the pair standing before the famous portrait that perpetually—as per the song’s title—sees crowds going “Apeshit.”
From the Italian Renaissance to the contemporary music scene and beyond, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a Florentine woman set against a mountainous landscape has struck a chord with people worldwide. Such is her popularity that some have tried vandalizing her to draw attention to themselves and their causes. And her image has been appropriated by everyone from Marcel Duchamp to Virgil Abloh.
What’s so special about the Mona Lisa, and why do we care so much? History professor and recent Leonardo biographer Walter Isaacson argues that she’s famous because viewers can emotionally engage with her. Others claim that her mystery has helped make her notorious.
Here’s a look at some of the likely reasons for our global obsession with this sepia-toned lady.
We’re not sure who she is.
Leonardo started the iconic portrait around 1503 when he was living in Florence, but he didn’t finish it for more than a decade. Early sources, such as 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, who described the Mona Lisa in The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, claim she is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Yet the artist didn’t give the painting to Gherardini and instead took it with him when he left Italy to work for King Francis I of France.
The painting’s provenance doesn’t disclose the lady’s identity, and Leonardo didn’t leave any visual clues—as he did in his few other portraits of women. In The Lady With an Ermine (1489–91), the furry creature alludes to the ancient Greek word for weasel-like animals, gallé, which sounds like the last name of its sitter, Cecilia Gallerani. Similarly, Ginevra de’ Benci (c.1474–78), shown here, is crowned by a juniper bush, or ginepro in Italian—a pun on her first name.
Some theories, such as Vasari’s, suggest that Leonardo never finished his portrait of Gherardini, and that the Mona Lisa is instead a portrait of art patron Isabella d’Este (Isabella Gualanda), Gallerani’s cousin.
She’s not like the others.
Leonardo was known for experimentation and innovation, and the Mona Lisa is no exception. The Renaissance polymath broke with the strict profile view that characterized many Italian portraits at that time (such as Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, above), and by including his subject’s hands, he made her appear more accessible than those portrayed in a standard bust view.
The portrait is also rendered in Leonardo’s signature sfumato, a smoky soft focus that eliminates hard lines and borders, which makes his subject’s skin glow. Beneath this incandescent surface, Leonardo (ever the scientist) demonstrated his new understanding of facial musculature. While he was painting the Mona Lisa he was also studying anatomy by dissecting corpses in the morgue of the Santa Maria Nuova hospital, which helped him produce the first known anatomical drawing of a smile.
“In this work of Leonardo there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold,” Vasari wrote of the Mona Lisa. “It was not other than alive.”
She was heisted.
Despite Vasari’s compliments, art critics did not begin praising the painting as a Renaissance masterpiece until the 1860s. The Louvre acquired the painting in 1804, but it didn’t draw too many visitors until 1911 when headlines firmly planted her in the public consciousness.
That year, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian carpenter who was working at the Louvre, decided to steal it by tucking it under his jacket and walking out of the museum one August day. The incident instigated a meeting of the French Cabinet and the resignation of the Louvre’s director of paintings.
Spurred by the ensuing media frenzy, museumgoers went to see the empty space where she had hung at the Louvre. Postcards were printed, Mona Lisa dolls were made and marketed, a brand of corsets was named after her (foreshadowing how she’s used to merchandise all manner of wares now). Even bigger crowds came to see her when she was recovered two years later, with more than 100,000 people viewing her at the Louvre in the first two days alone.
She’s become an endless source of homages and parodies.
By 1914 the Mona Lisa had become highly recognizable, making her a ripe subject for appropriation.
The year after she was triumphantly returned to the Louvre, Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich created a mixed-media collage titled Composition With the Mona Lisa (1914), with a color reproduction of her at its center. Marcel Duchamp soon created L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) using a monochrome Mona Lisa postcard as a readymade, upon which he doodled a mustache, goatee, and letters (which if read aloud in French sound like “Elle a chaud au cul,” or “She is hot in the ass”).
Other canonical artists followed. Fernand Léger painted La Joconde aux Clés (1930), Philippe Halsman produced Dalí as a Mona Lisa (1954), and Fernando Botero made a plump Mona Lisa in 1959, which he reprised in 1978. Leonardo’s portrait became the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s earliest silkscreen works, in 1963, when the Pop artist used the reproduction from a Met brochure to copy and serialize her portrait.
After Warhol’s heyday, with the economic boom of the 1960s resulting in a boon to advertising (especially in the United States), the Mona Lisa started to cameo regularly in marketing campaigns. During the 1970s, she featured in around 23 new advertisements per year, and that number increased to 53 per year in the following decade. Her visage gave products the stamp of art-historical importance while also fueling her own popularity.
She’s a Parisian landmark.
The 1960s boom that supercharged ad campaigns also kicked off mass tourism, with Paris becoming a top international destination. The Mona Lisa has left French soil only a handful of times since Leonardo brought her to Francis I’s court in the early 16th century, making her nearly as permanent a fixture as other Parisian tourist destinations.
The few times she’s left her perch at the Louvre have only fed Mona Lisa fever, with the flashiest of these being in 1963, when Jacqueline Kennedy helped broker a loan to show her at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Treated like a celebrity, she was welcomed by the Kennedys and feted with an official dinner (where the dessert was Poires Mona Lisa, poached pears coated with a chocolate sauce and baked into pastry). Americans took notice and came to see her in droves, with 1,751,521 visitors to the museums in the six weeks she was in the United States. A similar tour was repeated a decade later when the Mona Lisa went to Japan; the international media attention that ensued cemented her status as an icon.
Owing to her fragility, the Mona Lisa is unlikely to ever leave the Louvre again, and visitors who make the pilgrimage to see her there find her in the museum’s biggest room—the Salle des États, a room once used by Napoleon III for legislative sessions. Her bulletproof case and designated wall are evidence of her elite status. A leaked French Ministry of Culture report from 2018 disclosed, among other things, that even with all the masterpieces contained in the Louvre’s permanent collection, nine out of ten visitors claim they come to see Leonardo’s lady.