The Mona Lisa famous largely because of good and abundant press, honestly. The various reasons for the fame of the Mona Lisa can be split into the times before and after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.
Prior to the theft:
- Leonardo’s name was a well-known and very well-respected one in art historical terms, meaning owning any piece by him (especially considering there are only ~25 total paintings out there, either known or lost/destroyed/speculated) was a big deal. He might not have been the best Renaissance painter, but he was the Renaissance Man, and rightfully considered a master of his craft.
- It broke all sorts of conventions for painting at the time: the portrait is cropped oddly, she’s not a religious subject, it’s intimate, the blurred background and use of sfumato was very unusual. Because of this, this new motif of portraiture began to be imitated almost immediately.
- The painting was owned by a number of kings and kept in their various residences before it was transferred to the Louvre after the Revolution. While it was in private (royal) view, its existence was known because of the copies and imitations that already existed, and also because it was accessible to a number of royals, nobles and dignitaries. Once it was put on public display in the Louvre, in the time of the Romantics, it became a big hit. Writers and poets began to refer to her, romanticizing her, making her something of a myth.
- In particular, in the 1860s, an English critic named Walter Pater wrote a long and vivid and extremely poetic essay praising the painting, calling her a “ghostly beauty”. At this point, art criticism was in its infancy, so this made a huge contribution to the field, and became by far the most well-known piece of writing about an artwork at that point. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:
It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions… She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her
- And possibly most importantly, nobody truly knew who the hell she actually was.
So you’ve got this painting that has been copied since nearly the day it was finished, that’s been owned by kings, that was painted by an acknowledged leader of Renaissance ideals and techniques, and that’s had the most famous (at the time) piece of art writing that exists written about it, and its subject is still a mystery.
Then she gets stolen from the Louvre.
After the theft:
- Because of all of the above, the theft was widely publicised. At this point the Mona Lisa was considered a “treasure” of France. There were rewards offered, there were numerous newspaper articles written – we’re talking worldwide, not just in France. Everybody knew the Mona Lisa now.
- After the painting was found, the commercial aspect of her image began. You already had painters and engravers from as far back as the 16th century making copies of her. Now, with a much more widely circulated and accessible media, and new forms of printing and photography, her face was everywhere. Film and theatre stars posed like her, parodies were painted (like Duchamp’s with a moustache), she was on greeting cards and postcards and stamps, songs were written.
- The Louvre lent the painting out twice – once in 1963 and once in 1974 – adding to the international fame of the work.
- Dan Brown wrote some ridiculous book claiming that
the Louvre owned 6 Mona Lisas and the curator got to “decide” which one to display as realthe Mona Lisa is androgynous and represents the union of Jesus & Mary Magdalene, and was a threat to the Catholic Church. Or that it was a self portrait. People read Dan Brown and believe this.
- And now, more than 8 million people every year see her, and her fame continues.
She’s not famous because she’s the best example of a painting ever, or even of a Renaissance painting. She’s famous because people keep talking about her. They have done ever since she was painted, and they’ll keep doing so. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s 90% myth.