- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Harvest Books; Reprint edition (Jan 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0156027119
- ISBN-13: 978-0156027113
- Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.3 x 2.2 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,446,126 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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We learn many interesting facts along the way: The painting was acknowledged as a masterpiece even during Leonardo's lifetime. One reason was Leonardo's use of the "contrapposto" position, which shows the model's torso in a three-quarter view, while the face looks in a different direction. This is meant to bring movement to what, in a full straight-on view, would otherwise be static. Surprisingly, there was nothing special about "the smile." Smiles were common in Renaissance portraiture. What would have been unusual would have been someone looking sad in a portrait of the time. Interestingly, Leonardo tried that in his portrait "Ginevra de'Benci". That model was also "prettier" than the model for the "Mona Lisa", at least by current standards. But that painting is nowhere near as famous as the "Mona Lisa".
Mr. Sassoon takes us through all the hoops in trying to explain why the "Mona Lisa" is most famous. Besides the fact that Leonardo painted it, the author mentions the fact that the painting is in the Louvre; that it was stolen in a famous theft just a few years before WWI; that the advertising industry has latched onto the painting ad nauseum, etc. We reach the end of the book not really believing that any of this is sufficient to explain the superstar status of this painting. Mr. Sassoon himself points out that there are many other paintings by equally famous artists; many such paintings in the Louvre; many famous paintings that have been involved in famous thefts, etc. So, why the "Mona Lisa".....
So, just read this book for the interesting history of the painting and for the author's trenchant observations on the "art world". It helps that Mr. Sassoon has a great sense of humor about the whole thing, also. What other painting could inspire a man to sell his business so that he could take a job as a Louvre guard? This is what a man named Leon Mekusa did in 1981. He explained that he considered "being able to greet the 'Mona Lisa' before anyone else in the morning as such a privilege that he had asked not to be paid."!! People even write letters to the painting, care of the Louvre....
Oh, by the way, in case you're wondering about the title of this review; The "Mona Lisa" bears the Louvre inventory number of 779. That's one mystery cleared up anyway...
Of course Mona is good-looking, but that doesn't explain it. Leonardo painted other female portraits of handsomer women. For centuries, _The Last Supper_ was his more famous work. It was only when a cult of Leonardo rose among the romantics in the nineteenth century that his work loomed over that of, say, Michelangelo and Raphael, who were far more prolific and influential. Leonardo was busy doing other stuff, and mostly failing. His gadgets stayed on the page and his experiment with oils on the _Last Supper_ doomed it to precipitous decay. In the romantic imagination of a century and a half ago, however, dreaming big and failing was heroic, and he looked the part, although his bearded, god-like visage is probably not the self-portrait everyone assumed. Gautier and Pater wrote purple prose about the lady, and if she had hired a publicity agent, she could not have achieved greater success. In 1911 she made headlines because she was stolen, and she has been a steady focus for fiction during the twentieth century. Sasson has listed many, many references to her, such as Nat King Cole's famous song.
When in 1919 Marcel Duchamp drew a beard and goatee on a postcard of her, and exhibited this naughty French postcard under a saucy title, he continued a trend of including Mona in popular art, something that Malevich, Dali, Magritte, and Warhol have all done as well. There are good send-ups and bad, some that expand our ideas of the realm of this icon, and some that are just gross. All get included in this remarkably inclusive and wide-ranging book. Witty and lucid, it is not so much about a painting as it is about fashions and history, and the role chance plays in our search for objects of fame.