Sassoon shows with statistics that he Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world; yet a survey of people who have seen the painting in the Louvre "reveal a deep frustration": they want to know WHY it is so famous. Sassoon's answer is that even a great work of art achieves world-wide iconic status because it receives "appropriate political, ideological and technological support". His book will set out to explain, not only the history of that painting, but the history of that support. He amply and brilliantly fulfils that promise, positioning the attitudes to the Mona Lisa in the context of cultural developments, especially from the mid-19th century onwards. THE PARTIAL REVIEW THAT FOLLOWS IS TO SOME EXTENT A SPOILER, BUT IT DOES NOT DO JUSTICE TO THE AUTHOR'S DEEPLY RESEARCHED, WELL-WRITTEN AND EXTRAORDINARILY RICH AND WIDE-RANGING SUPPORTING MATERIAL. The bibliography runs to 26 pages.
He begins by setting out the many theories about who the sitter was; even now her identity is not securely established. But from very early on other painters were clearly inspired by her pose; and this is illustrated with a number of reproductions. It is, however, very odd that neither these nor larger images I have called up on Google reveal the details that Sassoon describes: "barely perceptible columns" framing the Mona Lisa" (p.34 - this should surely be "the barely perceptible edges of the bases of columns"); "the recognizable Florentine urban background" (p.40) of Rafael's Maddalena Doni (the background is rural); the blemishes on Maddalena Doni's face (p.40); "the landscape [in Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine] is not interesting" (p. 125; there is no landscape).
After the Mona Lisa passed from the possession of the Kings of France to that of the nation and the Louvre was open to the public, copyists streamed in; but in the first half of the 19th century, the Mona Lisa was not yet the centre of attention and between 1851 and 1880 was copied a good deal less frequently than were works by Murillo, Correggio, Veronese, Titian, Greuze or Proud'hon; and in 1852 it was valued at less than a quarter of Rafael's La Belle Jardinière.
In the middle of the 19th century, Italian Renaissance artists were, for the first time, regarded as being as worthy of admiration as the Ancient Greeks and Romans; but even then the biggest names were initially Rafael and Michelangelo. The cult of Leonardo began later, and at first centred on his scientific and mechanical drawings. But then he became celebrated as the universal genius, the archetypal "Renaissance man". Even then, it was Leonardo's Last Supper, popularized through prints, rather than the Mona Lisa which was by far his best-known work. The first good print of the Mona Lisa was produced only in 1857. Around this time she is interpreted as the mysteriously smiling and dangerous woman by a number of Romantic writers, foremost among them the novelist and influential art-critic Théophile Gautier, who also obsessively portrayed femmes fatales in many of his stories. Walter Pater, in his famous passage of 1859, played down, if he did not wholly to abandon, the idea of a sexual threat emanating from the Mona Lisa. He saw her as emanating age-old experience and knowledge and as reflecting something of all women - whether ancient or modern, pagan or religious. Sassoon says that this passage propelled the Mona Lisa decisively towards becoming the most famous picture in the world, and will be alluded to or parodied by writers for the next half century or so. Leonardo and the Mona Lisa now figure in novels and in plays about them. In 1910 Freud interpreted her smile as evoking in Leonardo the smile of his mother.
In the following year the theft of the painting from the Louvre made for sensational headlines in the popular press, and the image of the painting, its history, the interpretations of it and reiterated references to the "enigmatic smile" now became familiar to the masses who had previously been ignorant of or indifferent to it. Huge crowds visited the Louvre to contemplate the space where the painting had once hung, while others bought satirical postcards or listened to cabaret songs about the theft. All this was repeated when the painting was recovered in 1913. The story became the subject of novels (four of them published as late as the 1990s), a film and even an opera. Over the years, minor sensations were created by stories that the painting returned to the Louvre was not the original, which is now claimed to be in the possession of such and such a person. When the original was lent to the United States for eight months in 1963, more than 1.6 million people were shepherded past it to catch a glimpse of it - even if only for a few seconds; and when, eleven years later, she was lent to Japan, the viewing time allowed to each visitor was even shorter.
Now that she was so popular, some cognoscenti (the art historian Robert Longhi, Bernard Berenson, T.S.Eliot, Somerset Maugham) began to be sniffy about her. And Dadists, Futurists and Surrealists take up the idea of satirizing the painting, partly as a deliberate attack on museum art. When Warhol painted multiple images of her, he conveyed the idea that, just like Marilyn Monroe or Campbell Soup Cans, she had become an icon of mass consumption. She became the subject of pop art, of two musicals and a slew of pop songs (one of which hit the No.1 spot in the US charts in July 1950). The last chapter overwhelms the reader with a depressing torrent of the image being exploited by advertisers, and being vulgarized by an avalanche of painters - one authority lists nearly 300 - from the 1950s onwards. Articles in some medical journals have claimed to detect all kinds of diseases in the sitter - but to me this last chapter suggests that the disease is in our age.