Journal Article

<i>Mona Lisa</i>: the Best Known Girl in the Whole Wide World

Donald Sassoon

in History Workshop Journal

Volume 2001, issue 51, pages 1-18
Published in print January 2001 | ISSN: 1363-3554
Published online January 2001 | e-ISSN: 1477-4569 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/hwj/2001.51.1

Mona Lisa: the Best Known Girl in the Whole Wide World

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Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? No other painting in the world is recognized so instantly as ‘art’. This article examines the causes of this notoriety: the originality of the painting was recognized by Leonardo's contemporaries; it became part of a royal collection (that of the King of France); it was in Paris, the main artistic centre of the nineteenth century, in a publicly accessible museum, the Louvre; it was regarded as a visual representation of the femme fatale by French and British intellectuals (Gautier and Pater in particular) who invented the famous smile; it was painted by a ‘universal’ genius whose cult developed throughout the nineteenth century; it was stolen in 1911 and recovered in 1913, at the peak of the boom of the illustrated press; it was identified by the avant-garde as the most obvious High Culture work to be parodied; it was sent to the USA and Japan to represent European culture. Since then it has been ‘quoted’ in well over 300 paintings and 2,000 advertisements. The result of these processes has been the transformation of a product of High Culture into a global icon.

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Subjects: History of Gender and Sexuality ; Public History ; Labour History ; Oral History ; Social and Cultural History

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