What Makes A Work Of Art Great?

Introduction to Mariko Art by, John F Groom

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The Mona Lisa

If you ask most people if the Mona Lisa is a great painting, they would instinctively say “Of course”. But why? It is probably the most famous painting in the world. It has been called “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” (John Lichfield, ‘The Moving of the Mona Lisa’, The Independent, April 2, 2005). But, again, we ask why?

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Leonardo da Vinci's The Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci’s
The Mona Lisa

We are not going to argue that it is a terrible or ugly painting; we find it nice enough, and interesting. But if it were not introduced to people as a work of great importance, would they recognize it as such? We think not. It is a nice painting, of no particular intrinsic importance, that became well-known for reasons outlined below, but then it became famous simply for being very famous.

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Leonardo da Vinci, A self-portrait

Leonardo da Vinci,
A self-portrait

 

 

 

As we explain in more detail below, it helps that the Mona Lisa had a very famous creator; Leonardo da Vinci, a man famous in his own time and even more highly regarded in our time. But despite the fame of the creator, the circumstances of the creation of the Mona Lisa are quite mundane. Da Vinci was living in his native Florence when, in 1503, he was commissioned to paint the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, an ordinary middle class woman and mother of five children, by her husband. Da Vinci probably took on the work for the very simple reason that he had no more pressing commissions at the time, and, like any working artist, needed to support himself. But he wasn’t paid for the painting, and, like any commissioned artist who has not been paid, he retained possession of his work, continuing to work on it from time to time until his death.

 

The History Of The Mona Lisa

 

The painting was owned by a series of famous men: French king Francois bought the painting and put it at The Palace of Fontainebleau; Louis XIV moved it to Versailles. Napoleon kept it briefly in his bedroom. This is not to say that the painting was regarded as particularly outstanding; French Kings owned hundreds of paintings, and thousands of things which might be considered works of art. A nice but perhaps unfinished painting of an unknown woman created by a part time painter – hardly the foundation for a legendary work of art, even if it could be found among the vast collections of royal art collections.

 

The painting was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was accused of the theft and jailed; he tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was brought in for questioning. In fact, Louvre employee and Italian nationalist Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen the Mona Lisa by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. He kept it in his apartment for two years until he was finally caught when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery.

 

In 1956 a vandal threw acid at the Mona Lisa; later that same year a young Bolivian man threw a rock at it. In both cases the damage was minor, but the fame, or infamy, of the painting grew. In 1974 a woman upset by the Tokyo National Museum’s policy for the disabled sprayed red paint at the Mona Lisa while it was on display there. In 2009 a Russian woman, upset over being denied French citizenship, threw a mug at the painting. The painting is famous largely because it has managed to attract an international cast of nut cases – Italian, Bolivian, Japanese, Russian – who have unsuccessfully tried to damage the painting, attacks motivated not by the painting itself but by the painting as a symbolism of French art; although it was not created in France or by a Frenchman.

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