When the Mona Lisa was stolen, visitors queued for hours to see the vacant wall.

Paris, France

When, on August 22, 1911, an artist visiting the Louvre in Paris, France, asked why Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wasn’t hanging in its usual place, a museum guard explained that it was probably being photographed for a marketing brochure. At the time, the small painting was just another museum masterpiece: a 1908 Baedeker travel guide to Paris dedicates only two lines to it, far fewer than to the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Twenty-eight hours later, Louvre attendants realized that the Mona Lisa had actually been stolen. After “Wanted” images of the painting were published in newspapers worldwide, visitors began queuing for hours to see the place where it had hung. When the Mona Lisa was recovered in Florence, Italy, more than a year later, crowds gathered at Italian train stations to salute her on her way back to Paris.

Since then, the Mona Lisa has traveled to New York, Moscow and Tokyo. She has been photographed with stars such as Eminem, Puff Daddy and Jackie Onassis. Artists and advertisers have multiplied her, animated her, dressed her like Chinese leader Mao Zedong, undressed her and put a mustache above her lip. Vandals have thrown rocks, paint, acid and coffee mugs at her. Last year, she was more visited than Mecca and the Vatican combined, with about 9 million devotees, each of whom spent an average 15 seconds in her company. Just enough time to hand a friend the camera, get into position, and immortalize the pinched smile of a woman who has been posing for too long.


From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.