We have picked these examples because they are all famous paintings by famous artists, hardly ignored by history, and all painted at about the same time: Leonardo began the Mona Lisa in 1503 and it was still supposedly unfinished at his death in 1519. The latest of the paintings discussed above, the Proverbs, was painted in 1559.
Each of the paintings cited above was painted by an immensely talented artist, and each one, from the technical point of view of craftsmanship, is far more complex than the Mona Lisa, and, as a work of art or culture, much more important. But not nearly as celebrated. While we have cited these famous examples, we could have cited thousands of others to make the same point.
Reasons For The Fame Of The Mona Lisa
In addition to its tabloid history as briefly outlined above, here are some other reasons why the Mona Lisa is the most famous work of art in the world:
It’s mysterious in terms of subject and expression, but simple enough for most people to understand. According to a Guardian article, visitors generally spend about 15 seconds looking at the Mona Lisa; that’s not much time to take in a lot of complexity. It is, in many ways, the Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan of the art world: who knows why those gals do those crazy, destructive things? But cutting all your hair off or crashing your sports car is something that anyone can understand; no more or less complex than the story of people trying to vandalize a famous painting.
The Sistine Chapel is not accessible; it is overwhelming, a work that seems to have been created by the artistic version of SuperMan rather than an ordinary mortal. You can look straight at the Mona Lisa; you have to crane your neck and look up, and then around in an awkward way to look at the Sistine Chapel. To really figure out The Proverbs painting, you have to look carefully at the painting to tell one story from another; not so with the Mona Lisa; one glance is really all it takes. Bosch is fantastic, but also frightening and bewildering. There is nothing frightening about Lisa. Even the name is easy to pronounce. “Mona” is the Italian version of “Miss” or “Mrs.”, so Mona Lisa simply means “Ms. Lisa”; not too hard to understand.
While the Mona Lisa may be simple and vastly overrated, the same cannot be said for the man who painted it. Leonardo managed to create some of the most famous paintings in the world, including the Last Supper, as a part time artist. He spent most of his time working as what would be considered his day’s version of a defense contractor. Many of his inventions, including the many cranes and pulleys Leonardo created, were designed to help the warlords of Italian city states either protect their domains or attack others. He was a stunningly inventive and imaginative man, thinking about machines, like helicopters and submarines, that were centuries before their time. He was a world class sculptor, inventor, and scientist, as well as a musician and stunningly prolific note taker and futurist. It’s true that he rarely finished what he started, including the Mona Lisa. But overall, he was a man of almost unparalleled genius and creativity. And nothing works so effectively to make a work of art famous as to have it created by a famous artist. Even if it was not really his best painting.
It’s In The Louvre
With almost 10 million annual visitors, the Louvre is far and away the most visited art museum in the world. The Louvre is in the middle of Paris. If you want to make something famous, put it in the most famous art museum in the world. And put that museum in one of the most visited, glamorous cities in the world.
The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello, displayed at the Ashmolean Museum, is a beautiful, striking work of art, with many bright figures against a dark background. And Uccello’s development of the technique of perspective helped change the entire course of art. But we’ll bet you haven’t seen it. Well under a million people visit the Ashmolean in Oxford, England every year; it ranks 74th in the world in attendance according to The Art Newspaper. This despite the fact that the Ashmolean is famous as the world’s first university museum, and part of famous Oxford University. It has drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael and, yes, Leonardo da Vinci, and paintings by John Constable, Claude Lorraine, and Pablo Picasso, as well as many others. But, hey, it’s in Oxford, not Paris.