14 Things You Didn't Know About the Mona Lisa

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Her tricky smile and timeless allure have inspired academic study and artistic emulation for more than five centuries. But the story of Leonardo da Vinci's perplexing portrait is even richer than it looks.

1. "Mona Lisa" is not her name.

The painting's subject is commonly thought to be Lisa Gherardini, whose wealthy—and presumably adoring—husband Francesco del Giocondo commissioned the work in Florence, Italy around 1503. This explains the less prevalent title for the painting, La Gioconda, or La Joconde in French. The name Mona Lisa (or Monna Lisa, as the Italians prefer) roughly translates to "My Lady Lisa." Leonardo da Vinci never completed the portrait though—when he died in 1519, it was one of many unfinished works left to his assistant.

2. Napoleon crushed hard on her, then her descendent.

The French emperor once had Mona Lisa hanging in his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace for about four years, beginning in 1800. It's said his fascination with the painting inspired his affection for a pretty Italian named Teresa Guadagni, who was actually a descendant of Lisa Gherardini.

3. Mona Lisa is smaller than you might think.

The Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre
Chris Radburn-Pool/Getty Images

Mona Lisa's influence on culture is massive, but the oil-on-wood panel painting measures just 30 inches by 21 inches and weighs 18 pounds.

4. Her eyebrows are a matter of debate.

Some claim the subject's lack of eyebrows is representative of high-class fashion of the time. Others insist her AWOL eyebrows are proof that Mona Lisa is an unfinished masterpiece. But in 2007 ultra-detailed digital scans of the painting revealed da Vinci had once painted on eyebrows and bolder eyelashes. Both had simply faded over time or had fallen victim to years of restoration work.

5. She's broken a lot of hearts.

The portrait was first put on public display in the Louvre in 1815, inspiring admiration, as a string of "suitors bearing flowers, poems and impassioned notes climbed the grand staircase of the Louvre to gaze into her 'limpid and burning eyes.'"

"Mona Lisa often made men do strange things," R. A. Scotti wrote in Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa, "There were more than one million artworks in the Louvre collection; she alone received her own mail. Mona Lisa received many love letters, and for a time they were so ardent that she was placed under police protection." The painting has its own mailbox at the Louvre because of all the love letters its subject receives.

6. Men have died from loving her.

In 1852, an artist named Luc Maspero supposedly threw himself from the fourth floor of a Parisian hotel, leaving a suicide note that read: "For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die." In 1910, one enamored fan came before her solely to shoot himself as he looked upon her.

7. The Mona Lisa is essentially priceless.

In the 1960s, the painting went on a tour where it was given an insurance valuation of $100 million (factoring in inflation, more recent assessment estimated it's worth $2.5 billion). But the policy was never taken out because the premiums were more than the cost of the best security.

8. The painting hangs in the world's prettiest prison.

Mona Lisa hangs in the center of the Louvre's Grand Gallery where it is climate-controlled to keep her in the ideal environment. Additionally, the work is encased in bulletproof glass to prevent threat and injury.

9. The Mona Lisa has been attacked!

If you look closely at the subject's left elbow, you might notice the damage done by Ugo Ungaza Villegas, a Bolivian who chucked a rock at the portrait in 1956. A few months before, another art attacker pitched acid at the painting, which hit the lower section. These attacks inspired the bulletproof glass, which in 2009 successfully rebuffed a ceramic mug hurled by an enraged Russian woman who'd been denied French citizenship.

10. France mourned en masse when she went missing.

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The New York Times retroactively compared the public display of grief to that seen in the wake of Princess Diana's death in 1997. Thousands poured into the Louvre to stare in shock at the blank wall where she once hung and leave flowers, notes, and other remembrances.

11. Pablo Picasso was a suspect in the caper.

Because he'd been caught buying stolen Louvre pieces before, Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning. But the true thief would not be caught until 1913.

Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia was a proud Italian nationalist who smuggled the painting out under his smock because he felt it belonged to his and da Vinci's homeland, not France. After hiding it for two years, Peruggia was busted trying to sell Mona Lisa to a Florence art dealer. However, he did briefly get his wish. Upon her recovery, Mona Lisa toured Italy before returning to Paris.

12. Suspicions arose that the heist wasn't a one-man job.

The Mona Lisa in 1914.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Though Peruggia was the only one prosecuted for the crime, it's unlikely he acted alone. At the time of the theft, Mona Lisa was encased in a heavy wood backing and glass case that would have weighed almost 200 pounds, making it highly unlikely Perugia could have pulled it down from the wall on his own.

Years later, a man who called himself the Marquis of the Vale of Hell confessed to American reporter Karl Decker that he was the true mastermind behind the theft of Mona Lisa. On the condition his story be kept secret until his death, he revealed Peruggia was one of three men paid handsomely to snatch her. This way, the Marquis could sell multiple forgeries of the masterpiece to collectors for exorbitant sums. The beauty of the scam was that each buyer would believe they owned the authentic missing Mona Lisa. Whether the Marquis was telling the truth or not is still a hotly debated topic around the theft.

13. The Mona Lisa's return inspired a fashion trend.

In her book Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, journalist Dianne Hales writes, "Society women adopted the 'La Joconde look' [named for the painting's French title], dusting yellow powder on their faces and necks to suggest her golden complexion and immobilizing their facial muscles to mimic her smile. In Parisian cabarets, dancers dressed as La Joconde performed a saucy can-can … Something beyond the painting's wild popularity had changed. The Mona Lisa had left the Louvre a work of art; she returned as a public property, the first mass art icon."

14. Mona Lisa's smile doesn't change, but your mindset does.

That is-she-or-isn't-she smile has long fascinated artists and historians. But in 2000, Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingstone applied a scientific method to why Mona Lisa's smile seems to shift. It's all about where your focus is and how your brain responds.

This story was republished in 2019.

9 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh came to art relatively late, only deciding on it as a career at the age of 27. Now his post-Impressionist paintings of sunflowers, night skies, and the landscapes and people of Provence in southern France are among the most recognizable artworks in the world. But mental health issues, a lack of fame during his lifetime, and the infamous moment his ear was cut with a razor have made his story a compelling, complex narrative. Here are nine facts about the celebrated Dutch artist.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was an art dealer before he was an artist.

Before becoming an artist, Vincent van Gogh joined the art firm Goupil & Cie in The Hague in 1869 at the age of 16. In 1873, he was sent to London to work for the firm. His brother, Theo, worked for the same company in Brussels. While Theo thrived, Vincent struggled as an art dealer, and cared little for the commercial side of art. In 1876, he was fired. He then did some teaching and tried for a career as a preacher, like his father, but his first attempt at missionary work in a Belgian mining village was a failure. After six months, he'd made so little headway the evangelical committee that had sponsored him decided that he was unfit for the work.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was largely self-taught.

Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
J.M.W. de Louw, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Although van Gogh had short stints at art academies in Brussels and Antwerp, it wasn't a good fit—the teachers didn't like his style, and he didn't appreciate their traditional teaching methods. Over three months in Paris in 1886, artist Fernand Cormon mentored van Gogh in sketching studies of models. These brief experiences were the bulk of his art education. Instead, he focused on training himself: Early in his career, he created hundreds of drawings to play with ideas and develop his skills. He also spent hours studying drawing manuals and copying prints, including those of work by Delacroix and Rembrandt, to master his sketching technique.

  1. Most of van Gogh’s work was made in a single decade.

Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned from 1880 to 1890. In that one decade, he created more than 2000 drawings, paintings, watercolors, and sketches. In the last two months of his life, while he was settled in Auvers-sur-Oise, he was prolific, making about a painting a day.

  1. Van Gogh only signed his first name.

Despite his late start as an artist, van Gogh was confident in his brand, and signed his paintings just “Vincent.” He may have chosen this shortened name because he knew his surname was difficult to pronounce (most people still don't give it the full "vun KHOKH" Dutch pronunciation). Or, he may have been inspired by his Dutch hero Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who similarly only signed his first name.

  1. Japan inspired van Gogh as much as Provence did.

While living in Paris from 1886 to 1888, van Gogh acquired a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which influenced the aesthetics of his paintings. (A Japanese woodblock print of geishas appears in his 1889 Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.) When he arrived in Provence and witnessed the weathered trees and soft light of Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: "My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan." The colors in the paintings he created in Provence, particularly the blues, purples, and yellows, reflected the dominant palette of Japanese prints of the time. He also adopted the skewed perspectives—such as in the 1888 The Bedroom—and the diagonal, streaking rain that he observed in Japanese prints. Although he never made it to Japan, his idealized vision of the country infused his early depictions of the south of France.

  1. Van Gogh's paintings today don't always look the way he intended.

Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Mary Turner/Getty Images

Synthetic paint tubes (a new invention dating to 1841) were increasingly available to artists in the 19th century, and van Gogh mixed their vivid hues with natural pigments. The lead-based chrome yellow gave his sunflowers their lively glow, while red made from cochineal insects were used as a warm texture in several paintings. However, his experimentation with novel colors means we sometimes don't see his paintings as he intended. The bright red geranium lake has faded from his wheat fields; a violet on the walls of the 1888 The Bedroom turned to blue as the red in the pigment dissipated.

  1. There’s much debate around the mutilation of van Gogh's ear.

One of the most well-known incidents in van Gogh's life was when he cut off his own ear on December 23, 1888, in Arles. How much he sliced off, and the circumstances of the mutilation, are still under debate. Some historians have posited that it was after a quarrel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, as their friendship had rapidly deteriorated despite van Gogh’s hopes that they could form something of an artist community in Arles. Others have theorized that the act was in reaction to news that his beloved brother Theo was going to marry. By some reports it was just the earlobe, yet a sketch by Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated him, shows the whole ear being severed. Popular lore is that he presented the mangled flesh to a prostitute, but new research suggests it was a local farmer's daughter working as a maid in a brothel who was the unlucky recipient.

  1. Van Gogh's most famous artwork was painted in an asylum.

"This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June 1889. Although he didn’t include it in The Starry Night which he painted that year, the window he described was iron-barred and looked out from the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in southern France. He voluntarily admitted himself into the asylum on May 8, 1889. Created during this productive yet troubled time in van Gogh's life, the nocturnal tableau of curling pigment over a small village (which van Gogh largely imagined, with a church spire akin to those in his home country) is arguably his most famous work. It draws daily crowds in its current home, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

  1. Van Gogh's success was posthumous.

Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
PIERRE-FRANCK COLOMBIER/AFP/Getty Images

Two days after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890. Thanks to his constant correspondence with his brother Theo, later historians were able to reconstruct his biography, and recognize the essential support that his brother offered to Vincent. He had little commercial or critical success in his lifetime; the lore that he sold one painting while alive isn't completely true, but isn't that far off. (He sold at least two.)

But after his death, his star rose, helped significantly by his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger. After Theo died in 1891, she inherited heaps of Vincent's art, and spent years organizing exhibitions, promoting his work across Western Europe, and getting his pieces in public art collections. In 1905, thanks to her efforts, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam hosted a retrospective. Now Vincent van Gogh exhibitions are blockbusters around the world. In 1990, his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million at Christie's, setting a new record for a single painting.

A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

Kentucky for Kentucky
Kentucky for Kentucky

Many devoted KFC fans love the chain's crispy fried chicken for its signature taste and mouthwatering aroma. If you just love the way the chicken looks, now you can keep it on your shelf to admire forever. As Food & Wine reports, Kentucky for Kentucky is selling whole KFC drumsticks encapsulated in resin for $100.

Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

KFC drumstick in a jar.
Kentucky for Kentucky

The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

Only 50 of the finger-licking artworks were created, and at $100 a piece, they're worth the price of several KFC family buckets. You can grab one while they're still available from the Kentucky for Kentucky online store.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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