Why is the Mona Lisa famous?

The Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous painting. Wikipedia calls it ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world’. Several people flock to Paris just to see it, but are underwhelmed when they look at the picture.

Why are they underwhelmed?

Because the Mona Lisa is merely another just another painting, like the thousand others in art galleries around the world. Hardly anybody knew about this rather unremarkable work of Leonardo da Vinci the until 1914, when it became world-famous almost overnight.

Why did this happen? People have various theories as to why it captures our attention – its mysterious smile, its composition, subtlety and the genius of its creator. However, the real reason is because it was the victim of theft.

See adjacent text.

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia, a Louvre employee, who whisked it away inside his overcoat. But Peruggia wasn’t just another thief – he was an Italian patriot, who wanted the painting returned to his country. He kept the painting for 2 years until it was discovered and returned to the Louvre. Peruggia serve a short prison sentence, but was hailed as a model patriot in an era of patriotic fever.

More importantly, the painting’s recovery and the story of its theft was reported world-wide in newspapers, at a time when international news was not common. Millions of people around the world learnt about this painting, making it one of the best recognized works of art. It was this recognition that allowed the painting to be parodied and eventually made it the world’s most famous painting.

“The Mona Lisa has returned”

So the world’s most famous painting isn’t a remarkable painting – it merely has a remarkable story that most people who flock to visit it are unaware of. They are underwhelmed because they look at the painting rather than its story, and leave disappointed.

We often confuse fame with excellence or goodness, but the reasons for fame are often orthogonal to those qualities. That is why the pursuit of fame, like the pursuit of Mona Lisa, often leaves people feeling disappointed when they get there.

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