Renaissance artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, is without question one of the most famous and recognized works of art. She was thought to have been painted in the early 1500’s and her trajectory to fame skyrocketed upon being acquired by the King of France in the 1530’s. In a time when there were no such inventions like photographs or digital medium, viewers apparently marveled at Mona Lisa’s human qualities. In the 1650’s the painting was relocated to its present home, the Musee du Lourve in Paris, where she now attracts more than six million visitors annually (Tovrov, 2011). At that time, the Lourve was a French royal residence and the painting was not in the public domain, until the residence became a museum and Mona Lisa made it into the public view in the early 1800’s.
Now back in the eye of the public, fascination with the painting again skyrocketed, and as some commentators have noted, was famous for simply being famous. And, this status bounded even further upward when the painting was stolen from the museum in 1911. In the time until the work was found and returned two years later, there was public outcry that such a dear national treasure, could be so loosely guarded. During her absence, and immediately thereafter, popular culture began to use Mona Lisa as an icon of interest, as she appeared in parade floats, cartoons, and memorialized on film and in music.
These commercial appropriations did not stop, as other artists created take-off works, spoofing the da Vinci masterpiece and interjecting their own sense of humor upon his highly regaled classic. The commercial use of Mona Lisa’s image continued for decades, ending up on everything from calendar to underwear. While some might call this exploitation, all of this appropriation is going on during a time when the art world is changing. Culture was modernizing, and people viewed the world and one another through lens other than the artist’s canvas.
Commercial use kept the Mona Lisa’s image relevant and in the popular realm. The Mona Lisa went on to tour parts of the world to enlighten even more viewers, and of course to span even more imitators—flattering or otherwise. In a sense, the Mona Lisa straddles a fine line between its status as one of the most famous works of art in the world, and an oft copied kitsch icon appearing on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts.
To me however, this has not diminished the importance of the original painting. After all, da Vinci was not known as the most talented or prolific painter in the Italian Renaissance, but it was his work, and not Raphael or Botticelli’s that spawned massive interest and imitation—flattering or otherwise. Was it the journey through the royal residence and being taken in and out of the public domain; or could it have been the drama associated with the work’s theft from the Lourve and eventual return? Irrespective of the answer, the fact remains that this painting is still seen by more than six million people each year—centuries later. The bottom line is that people are still seeing and enjoying da Vinci’s seminal work.
The recent literary work, The Da Vinci Code, has also created further interest to Mona Lisa. There are now tours and travel targeting fans of this modern book. Not surprisingly, the Mona Lisa has also found her way into contemporary advertising. Chanel, one of France’s most iconic and longest running couture fashion houses ran a print campaign a few years back featuring a Chanel clad model hailing a cab, while casually holding the Mona Lisa by her frame’s edge in the other hand. This image is memorable and interesting as the subject is presumably in the Paris streets, in my mind, not far from the Lourve where the painting was housed and previously stolen from. Perhaps the message was that the Chanel woman can get away with anything!
Equally stunning is the use of Mona Lisa for cancer awareness. Italy based ANT Foundation embarked on a public service campaign for cancer awareness and elected to use a “bald” Mona Lisa to show the world just how much upheaval cancer can wreak upon one’s life. How amazing that more than 450 years after she was created, the Mona Lisa remains iconic enough to appear as bald woman to make a bold and wisely heard statement as to the ravages of cancer. This in and of itself, is a strong statement of the impact that this famous painting has had upon history, as well as how it continues to impact our modern culture today. While skeptics may opine that appreciating Mona Lisa’s image anywhere other than in her Lourve ‘shrine’ or in a textbook is exploitative, it is probably more reasonable to view this as a tribute to the long lasting impact of this iconic work of art.
- Tovrov, D., “Why is the Mona Lisa So Famous.” (7 Sept. 2011). Web. 11 July.2015.
- “Leonardo da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa” (n.d). Web. 11 July.2015,
- “Mona Lisa Print Ad for Chanel”, Advertising Critic (n.d). Web. 11 July.2015
- “Bald Mona Lisa ads promote cancer awareness in Italy (6 Nov. 2013).