The disappearance of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre stunned Parisians, who had long dismissed any impossible task with the remark that doing so “would be like trying to steal the Mona Lisa.” 1 The theft was, however, a blessing for the city’s newspapers and magazines, which had prospered during the Third Republic. As the government ended its censorship policies, the circulation of Paris’s newspapers had nearly tripled what it had been in 1880. Nothing sold papers as well as crime stories, and this one was unparalleled for its sensational qualities. For days, headline writers competed for the mot juste to describe the Mona Lisa theft, struggling for a word to adequately express the shock: “INIMAGINABLE!” “INEXPLICABLE!” “INCROYABLE!” “EFFARANT!” 2 A newspaper printed a doctored photo of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame with one tower missing. The caption read, “Couldn’t this happen too?” 3 For Parisians, who loved both crime and art, it was an all-consuming event.
It was personal too. Le Figaro’s editor wrote, “Since it has disappeared, perhaps forever, one must speak of this familiar face, whose memory will pursue us, filling us with regret in the same way that we speak of a person who died in a stupid accident and for whom one must write an obituary.” 4 Less seriously, the Revue des Deux Mondes wrote that the meaning of the famous smile was now clear: Mona Lisa had been thinking of the fuss her disappearance would create. Outside the Louvre, vendors sold postcards on this theme, with cartoon images of the woman in the painting “escaping” from the museum, often with a taunt at her “captors,” the guards.
Someone who signed himself or herself as “Mona Lisa” expanded on this idea, writing a letter to L’Autorité that explained she had “divorced” the museum because she didn’t like the way she was talked about: “They’ve bored me stiff with this ‘famous smile!’… You do not know women or you do not know them well. If I smiled with an ‘enigmatic’ air it was certainly not for the ridiculous reasons attributed to me by the gentlemen of the literature.… This smile marked my lassitude, my scorn for all the skunks who paraded endlessly before me, and my infinite desire to carry out my abduction.
“I said to myself: what a face those officials will make when tomorrow the news will spread through all of Paris: La Joconde 5 has spent the night elsewhere!” 6
Since there were few real developments in the case, reporters were free to print rumors and sheer speculation about who had perpetrated the crime. All that restrained them were the limits of their imaginations. Among the more creative guesses was that of the Paris-Journal, which reported that a professional clairvoyant, Mme. Albane de Siva, after “ascertaining at the Central Astronomical Office the position of the planets at the time of the theft,” deduced that the picture was still hidden somewhere in the Louvre, and that the thief was “a young man with thick hair, a long neck and a hoarse voice, who had a passion for rejuvenating old things.” 7
Meanwhile, right-wing and monarchist publications alleged that the theft was only the latest manifestation of a crime wave that revealed “the extraordinary state of anarchy” 8 that characterized the government of the Third Republic, which, not by coincidence, was at that time led by Premier Joseph Caillaux, a member of the Radical-Socialist Party. The fact that Caillaux was currently negotiating with Germany over the two countries’ rival claims in Morocco led to a darker accusation: that the Germans had taken the painting and were holding it hostage to secure favorable terms in the final settlement. On the other hand, there were also some who saw the theft as “a political plot to injure the prestige of the Republic and murmur that the [supporters of the monarchy] could say if they would, where the Joconde is.” 9
In the days immediately following the theft, anyone carrying a package received attention. Two German artists, suspicious apparently because they were German and possessed paints and brushes, were reported to the police and questioned. A man running for a train — the 7:47 express for Bordeaux — while carrying a package covered by a horse blanket caused police to telephone the stationmaster at Bordeaux, asking him to search the train. When a shabbily dressed man approached an antiques dealer offering to sell a portrait of a “noblewoman,” the dealer informed the police.
The investigation soon spread its net over a wider area. Checkpoints on roads leading out of the capital examined the contents of every wagon, automobile, and truck. Fearing that the thief must be trying to leave the country, customs inspectors opened and examined the baggage of everyone departing on ships or trains. Then, ships that had left during the day that had passed between the theft and its discovery were identified and searched when they reached overseas ports. In New York City, detectives swarmed aboard the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II after it docked, and combed every stateroom and piece of luggage for the masterpiece.
Some thought the whole thing was a hoax, recalling that the satirical journal Le Cri de Paris had thrown the city into a panic the previous year by reporting that the Mona Lisa on view in the Louvre was a copy, hung there to hide the fact that the original had been stolen. That had proved to be the editor’s idea of a joke, but now people wondered if there had been some truth to the report, and whether this latest, actual disappearance would be covered up by the return of a “real” Mona Lisa. Not to be outdone, the editors of Le Cri de Paris now declared that the painting that had been stolen on August 21 was itself only a copy and that the genuine work was in the New York mansion of a millionaire identified as “J.K.W.W.” 10
“What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” asked L’Illustration, which offered a reward of 40,000 francs 11 to anyone who would deliver the painting to its office, presumably so that it could gain the publicity of solving the case. 12 Soon the rival newspaper Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs, and a bidding war was on, certain to attract dozens of people who wished only to collect the reward — or to attract attention to themselves. A waiter named Armand Gueneschan stepped forward, claiming to know where the painting was hidden. Supposedly it was in the hands of a rich nobleman who had financed the theft because he was obsessed with the image (not the last time this was suggested as a motive for the crime). Gueneschan offered to reveal the man’s name for 200,000 francs. However, after the police questioned the waiter, they concluded that he was either a liar or deranged.
Premier Caillaux, recognizing the importance of the theft to the nation, appointed a well-known jurist, Henri Drioux, as juge d’instruction (examining magistrate) to conduct an official inquiry. Louis Lépine, prefect of the Paris police, Octave Hamard, head of the Sûreté, and Alphonse Bertillon had already inspected the scene of the theft and turned up a few clues, finding the discarded case and frame in the stairwell. Le Petit Parisien sarcastically reported “Mona Lisa Stolen.… We still have the frame,” 13 but on the glass of the protective case, Bertillon found a fingerprint. A few years earlier, he had been credited with being the first criminologist to solve a case by using fingerprint evidence, and some thought this latest discovery signaled the imminent arrest of the culprit. Unfortunately, Bertillon’s files, comprising three-quarters of a million individual cards, were indexed under his own physical identification system and not according to fingerprint type. The only way to determine the owner of this incriminating fingerprint was to find the person who had left it there. Bertillon and his staff painstakingly began to collect the prints of every employee of the museum, 257 in all.
There was good reason to think that the theft was an inside job. That was certainly the personal view of France’s undersecretary of state of beaux-arts, Étienne Dujardin-Beaumetz. He had just finished a months-long struggle with museum employees who wanted to unionize — a battle that the employees had lost. The undersecretary thought a malcontented employee had taken the picture as an act of “personal vengeance” and predicted that “one day they’ll find the Mona Lisa hidden in some attic of the Louvre.” 14
Dujardin-Beaumetz was involved in another controversy that would for a time promise to throw light on the theft. The Department of Beaux-Arts had announced earlier in 1911 that it would allow a road to be built through the Saint-Cloud Park on the western outskirts of Paris, a move that people who lived around the park charged would destroy the natural beauty of the area. Protesters had demonstrated against the roadway throughout the summer of 1911. After the theft of the Mona Lisa, a handwritten note fell into the hands of the police. It declared that the painting was being held hostage to protect the park. It read, in part, “The Mona Lisa is well hidden in the house of the head stableman at the Parc de Saint-Cloud, where she was placed the very evening of her removal by the head gardener, who got it from one of the attendants of the museum. No use in looking elsewhere; she will be given back only if the park is left in its current state.” 15
The police searched the stableman’s house, as well as other locations in the park. They even explored the possibility that the spokesperson for a preservationist group had written the phony ransom note to give publicity to the efforts to preserve the park. If so, he succeeded, for an investigation revealed that Dujardin-Beaumetz had lied about the amount of damage the road would cause to the trees in the park. Months later, the pressure became too much for Dujardin-Beaumetz to endure, and he resigned his post.
Besides losing a masterpiece, the Louvre itself had suffered a great loss of pride. Paris-Journal ran the text of a sign that its editors suggested should be posted in the museum:
In the Interest of Art
And for the Safeguarding of the Precious Objects
Is Requested to be Good Enough to
WAKE THE GUARDS
If they are found to be asleep. 16
The day after the theft was announced, an article by Guillaume Apollinaire appeared in the evening newspaper L’Intransigeant. The poet and critic, after assessing the painting’s importance as art, criticized the museum’s security:
There is not even one guard per gallery; the small pictures in the Dutch rooms running along the Rubens gallery are literally abandoned to thieves.
The pictures, even the smallest, are not padlocked to the wall, as they are in most museums abroad. Furthermore, it is a fact that the guards have never been drilled in how to rescue pictures in case of a fire.
The situation is one of carelessness, negligence, indifference.
The Louvre is less well protected than a Spanish museum. 17
That last statement was a low blow indeed, although it would soon become clear to the authorities that Apollinaire knew far more about the Louvre’s security arrangements than he let on.
There were numerous false trails and hoaxes in connection with the case. A fourteen-year-old prostitute, Germaine Terclavers, already in custody, startled the police by claiming that her pimp and his gang had stolen the painting and that it was stored in Belleville, the apaches’ home base. She claimed that she had seen the painting herself and that the gang planned to ship it to the United States on an ocean liner.
Germaine had recently been arrested and sentenced by a judge to four years in a reform school, and she hoped to get a pardon by revealing what she knew. The police were able to find her nineteen-year-old boyfriend and pimp, named Georges. They placed him under arrest for carrying an illegal weapon — an all-purpose charge that the police routinely used to take into custody almost anyone they suspected of larger crimes. Georges turned out to be a feared gang leader, but whether he was skillful enough to carry off the Mona Lisa theft remained in doubt.
When questioned, Germaine provided more details, naming other gang members who she said had planned the crime for weeks. She had overheard them talking about a gardien (museum attendant), the Louvre, and La Joconde. According to her, she was even asked to serve as a lookout but turned the offer down. As she expanded her story, the police became more interested. She claimed that Georges had not come home the night before the Monday morning of the heist; when he returned late on Monday, he refused to say where he had been. Later, he bragged that he and his gang had committed a crime that had turned the city upside down.
“I remember,” Germaine said of her boyfriend, “that each day he read Le Journal, anxiously following developments in the investigation and constantly telling me that the gang ‘were going to get pinched.’ ” 18 Her denunciations were never corroborated, and the police could not tell whether Georges was simply trying to impress her or if there was some truth in the tale. In any event, Georges enlisted in the army to escape the charge of illegal gun possession, and Germaine was sent off to reform school, never again to receive as much attention as she had gained from her accusation.
Significantly, Germaine knew what buttons to push to gain credibility, for the theory that a rich American was the mastermind behind the theft was widespread. Countless letters poured into the Sûreté suggesting this scenario — often naming candidates for the “mastermind” behind the job. Since the earliest days of the Third Republic, Parisians had resented the increasing American population (sometimes called an invasion) in their city. Moneyed expatriates settled mainly in the eighth and ninth arrondissements, which became known as la colonie américaine. One 1905 visitor noticed that advertisements for American goods “hung everywhere.” 19 Rumors spread that Americans were rapidly buying up buildings around the place de l’Opéra. Only half-jokingly, the story made the rounds that an American millionaire had offered to buy the Arc de Triomphe.
Responding to a tip, Prefect of Police Lépine authorized a plan to have a French police officer pose as an American millionaire to negotiate the purchase of the Mona Lisa from a ring of art thieves who claimed it was in their possession. The supposed thieves turned out to be poseurs who wanted the money but had no painting. Yet speculation about American involvement continued. The favorite candidate for the rich American mastermind was J. Pierpont Morgan, known for his avid, if not avaricious, collecting habits, which frequently took him through Europe on buying sprees. When Morgan arrived the following spring in the spa town of Aix-les-Bains for his annual visit and the Mona Lisa had still not been found, Paris newspapers reported that two mysterious men had come to offer to sell him the Mona Lisa. Morgan indignantly denied the account, and when a French reporter came to interview him, the American wore in his buttonhole the rosette that marked him as a commander of the Legion of Honor — France’s highest decoration. He had recently been awarded it, causing some French newspapers to speculate that he had earned the decoration by offering “a million dollars and no questions asked” for the return of the Mona Lisa to the Louvre. 20
Morgan’s offer proved to be only rumor, and public sentiment turned against him, even in Italy. When Morgan and his sister prepared to leave Florence in April 1912, word spread that a painting was among the things they were taking with them. Hundreds of angry Florentines gathered at the railway station to block their departure. The financier had in fact purchased a painting while in Florence, but it was not the Mona Lisa. Even so, the crowd at the station had assumed that the stolen masterpiece had somehow returned to the place where Leonardo had begun to paint it (a suspicion that later proved prescient). Morgan had to strike about him with his heavy cane to fend off the mob and make a passage to board the train.
Though the best-known American collector, Morgan was far from the only one, and art-loving Europeans feared that American money would take many of their treasures overseas. (The fact that many of the works in European museums had been plundered from other countries in the first place was irrelevant.) Accusations of American involvement in the theft were so prevalent that the American railroad magnate H. R. Huntington felt compelled to issue a denial: “I have not seen the picture and have not been tempted,” he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “Besides, I don’t believe that I would care to be in the position of dealing for stolen goods. I don’t for the life of me see how they got away with it, assuming, of course, that it was really stolen.” 21
Was it really stolen? As time went by without a ransom demand, that question increasingly circulated through Paris. Suspicion began to fall on the photographers who were licensed to work in the museum. According to the magazine Gil Blas, those photographers had carte blanche to remove “any picture desired every Monday without any special authorization, and to remove it to the roof [where the sunlight was suitable for photographs] or any other suitable position for work.” 22 According to this theory, a photographer had accidentally damaged the painting, and to cover up the careless way it had been handled, the museum had blamed its disappearance on thieves. Supposedly, a team of restorers was working to repair the painting, and when they finished, its “recovery” would be announced.
After two weeks of investigation, the Louvre was once again opened to the public, and an even greater number of visitors than usual came to gape at the four hooks on the wall that marked the place where La Joconde used to hang. The crowds “didn’t look at the other pictures,” one reporter noted. “They contemplated at length the dusty space where the divine Mona Lisa had smiled.… And feverishly they took notes. It was even more interesting for them than if La Joconde had been in its place.” 23 A tourist, the aspiring writer Franz Kafka, visiting the Louvre on a trip to Paris in late 1911, noted in his diary the “crowd in the Salon Carré, the excitement and the knots of people, as if the Mona Lisa had just been stolen.” 24 People began to place bouquets of flowers on the floor at the spot where the painting had once hung.
Leonardo’s masterpiece had been famous before among well-educated people, but the publicity surrounding its disappearance made it a subject of popular culture. Songwriters in the cabarets of Montmartre always made use of current topics, and the theft of a painting of a beautiful woman was a godsend. One song, “L’as-tu vue? la Joconde!!” (“Have you seen her? the Gioconda!!”) had a stanza making fun of the guards (“It couldn’t be stolen, we guard her all the time, except on Mondays”) and had La Joconde herself complaining that she left because she didn’t want to be constantly stared at. 25 Another cabaret revue was said to have featured a line of topless Joconde girls. The respected journal La Comoedia Illustré photographed twelve well-known actresses in the clothing and pose of Mona Lisa and published them under the heading Les sourires qui nous restent! (“The smiles that we still have”). 26 One cabaret used a reproduction of La Joconde on a poster, with the caption, “I smiled at the Louvre. Now I am merry at the Moulin de la Chanson.” 27 The Zig-Zag cigarette paper company proclaimed that Mona Lisa had left the Louvre because she was anxious to have a smoke. High Life Tailor ran an ad claiming that the undersecretary of state of beaux-arts, hoping to avoid public execution for his failure of duty, had implored the tailor company to send over a photograph of their suits to hang in the Salon Carré in place of the lost painting. Even a corset maker portrayed its newest garment on a figure of the Mona Lisa, who at last was revealed to have perfect hips.
Inevitably the French movie industry also began to capitalize on the furor over the theft. The Pathé company, which had filmed a series of adventures about the detective Nick Winter (a knockoff of the popular American fictional detective Nick Carter), released Nick Winter et le vol de la Joconde (Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa) in the fall of 1911. Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod were among those who went to see it at the grand Omnia Pathé theater. Brod summarized the plot of the five-minute film, which turned the event into slapstick:
The picture opened with the presentation of M. Croumolle (everyone knows that it means “Homolle” 28 and no one protests against the perfidious way they are going after the gray-haired Delphi scholar). Croumolle is lying in bed, his stocking cap pulled down over his ears, and is startled out of sleep by a telegram: “Mona Lisa Stolen.” Croumolle — the Delphi scholar if you please, but I am not protesting, I was laughing so hard — dresses himself with clownlike agility, now he puts both feet into one leg of his pants; now one foot into two socks. In the end, he runs into the street with his suspenders trailing.… The [next part of] the story is set in the hall of the Louvre, everything excellently imitated, the paintings and, in the middle, the three nails 29 on which the Mona Lisa hung. Horror; summoning of a comical detective; a shoe button of Croumolle’s as red herring; the detective as shoeshine boy; chase through the cafés of Paris; passers-by forced to have their shoes shined; arrest of the unfortunate Croumolle, for the button that was found at the scene of the crime naturally matches his shoe buttons. And now the final gag — while everyone is running through the hall at the Louvre and acting sensational, the thief sneaks in, the Mona Lisa under his arm, hangs her back where she belongs, and takes Velázquez’s Princess instead. No one notices him. Suddenly someone sees the Mona Lisa; general astonishment, and a note in one corner of the rediscovered painting that says, “Pardon me, I am nearsighted. I actually wanted to have the painting next to it.” 30
What everyone wanted to know — and speculated on endlessly — was where the thief could have gone with what was probably the most recognizable artwork in the world. Other than the fingerprint, the only clue was the doorknob, now recovered by the police from the gutter outside the museum. The plumber who had opened the stairway door for the man who dropped it there was set to work looking at hundreds of photographs of museum employees, past and present. Every sighting of the painting or rumor about its whereabouts had to be checked out — and they came in from places as distant as Italy, Germany, Britain, Poland, Russia, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Japan. 31
As time went on without a solution to the case, many concluded that a gang of professional thieves had been at work. The only previous art theft comparable to this one had been the abduction of Gainsborough’s Duchess of Devonshire from a London gallery in 1876. The man who carried out that heist was Adam Worth, a German-born American whose international career as a thief earned him the nickname the Napoleon of Crime. Said to have been the inspiration for Professor Moriarty, the archcriminal of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Worth had stolen the Gainsborough from a London gallery and had tried to obtain a ransom for its return. When that plan fell through, he took the work back to the United States, where it hung in Worth’s Chicago house for the next quarter century. Some have suggested that Worth valued it as a trophy, even an object of desire, too much to accept any ransom for it. The Gainsborough did not surface until 1901, after further negotiations with the original owner through a friend of Worth’s, a Chicago gambler named Pat Sheedy, who announced a year later that Worth had died and was buried under an alias in a London cemetery.
Despite Sheedy’s claim, a popular historical novelist named Maurice Strauss published an article in one of France’s largest newspapers, Le Figaro, declaring that Worth was still alive and had duplicated his most famous crime by stealing the Mona Lisa. Strauss, who claimed to have seen Worth in 1901, reported that on reading the description provided by the museum plumber of the Mona Lisa’s thief (“a man of fifty years, handsome in feature, figure, and carriage, height a little above the average, the eyes keen and cold”), he was certain it must be Worth. “There is only one man in the world who would have acted with such tranquil audacity and so much dexterity,” Strauss wrote. 32 The public (and numerous journalists) embraced the idea; many believed that for such a great crime to seem plausible, an equally great criminal must have perpetrated it.
Worth was quoted as once having said, “All that I ever require is two minutes of opportunity. If I do not find those two minutes, I give up the job. Usually I find them, and 120 seconds, methodically employed, is enough for a man well-trained in his specialty to accomplish a great deal.” 33That was just the way most Parisians imagined the daring robbery had been carried out. Indeed, the criminologist Bertillon, well known for approaching every case from a scientific viewpoint, had placed a replica of the Mona Lisa on the wall of the Salon Carré and checked how long it would take to remove it from the wall and carry it away. Two men not accustomed to such work took more than five minutes to do it. However, a museum employee who knew how the hooks were placed was able to do it by himself in only six seconds, well within Worth’s window of opportunity. 34
Strauss himself was unusually specific about just how Worth had pulled off the heist: “It is he himself who carried off the ‘Joconde,’ and he did not have an accomplice. That is not his way. Nor did he take a train at the Quai d’Orsay terminus [closest stop to the Louvre]. After crossing the bridge, he turned to the left, with the picture under his arm, wrapped up in a piece of rep, traversed the Quai des Orfèvres, in front of the Prefecture of Police, and arrived at a friend’s house in the Marais where he removed his workman’s disguise. He hid his booty, the painted wooden panel, in the double bottom of his steamer trunk. Then, correctly clad as a gentleman traveler, he drove quickly in a taxicab to the Gare du Nord and got to London by way of Calais and Dover before Paris had sent its warnings to the English police.” 35 Despite Strauss’s seeming confidence, police investigations failed to turn up any trace of the legendary criminal Worth.
Contributing to the view that professional thieves must have been behind the disappearance of the Mona Lisa was a book, Manuel de Police Scientifique, published in 1911 by Rodolphe Reiss, a professor at the University of Lausanne. Reiss had for a time served as an assistant to Bertillon at the identification service of the Prefecture of Police, and his book was graced with an introduction by the prefecture’s current head, Lépine, so journalists pored through it for indications as to what kind of man the police were searching for. Assuming the role of a criminal profiler, Reiss wrote:
There are two classes [of pègres, or thieves], between which there is a profound distinction in their bearing, their manner of life, their habits, and the kinds of crime in which they engage. The upper pègre reserves itself for the audacious, difficult, profitable thefts or frauds, and leaves the brutal and bloody crimes to the lower pègre. It is notable, in fact, that the great robbers never kill; it is rarely, indeed, that they go armed. They work most carefully, with even a refinement of art… and they never indulge in those savage and useless acts — the breaking of furniture or the slashing of pictures, for example — whereby the lower pègre satisfies its barbarous love of destruction. Thus the nature of the crime, the aspect of the scene, afford to the police an immediate clue to the class of malefactor. Even cunning imitation… is not long successful. The touch is not the same. The robber cannot divest himself of his particular habit of doing things, which has fixed itself upon him more and more firmly during his long years of malfeasance. 36
That clearly pointed to someone of the same “class” as Worth.
The theft continued to inspire newspaper stories for weeks; any report on the case, no matter how trivial, found its way into print, reflecting the fact that this was more than an ordinary crime. Among the newspapers’ favorite topics was, What accounted for the fascination that this particular painting holds over people?
The Renaissance artist Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), who became better known for his biographical accounts of other artists, was the first to report that the portrait depicted Mona Lisa, 37 the young wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a citizen of Florence. According to Vasari, Leonardo worked on the painting for four years (today’s researchers date the period to 1503–6), but it remained unfinished, like so much of Leonardo’s other work. Leonardo took it with him when he traveled to France around 1517 at the invitation of King François I, an art lover and admirer. Leonardo died there two years later (a sentimental tradition has the king holding Leonardo in his arms at the artist’s death), and the painting, along with Leonardo’s other possessions, was left to Francesco Melzi, his friend and pupil. By the time Vasari wrote his book, around 1547, the painting had entered the collection of the French monarchy. (According to tradition, François I bought it from Melzi for four thousand gold florins. If the story is true, that was a considerable sum, for the king paid Leonardo about one-tenth that amount as an annual retainer.)
Vasari’s description of the painting is secondhand, and there are some discrepancies between it and the portrait as it exists — -leading some to question whether he was in fact describing the painting known as Mona Lisa. In any case, Vasari’s description shows that the painting had already acquired the nearly legendary reputation it has had ever since.
Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art can imitate nature can easily understand this from the head, for here Leonardo reproduced all the details that can be painted with subtlety. The eyes have the lustre and moisture always seen in living people, while around them are the lashes and all the reddish tones which cannot be produced without the greatest care. The eyebrows 38 could not be more natural, for they represent the way the hair grows in the skin — thicker in some places and thinner in others, following the pores of the skin. The nose seems lifelike with its beautiful pink and tender nostrils. The mouth, with its opening joining the red of the lips to the flesh of the face, seemed to be real flesh rather than paint. Anyone who looked very attentively at the hollow of her throat would see her pulse beating: to tell the truth, it can be said that portrait was painted in a way that would cause every brave artist to tremble and fear, whoever he might be. 39
The aura of mystery that gives the painting so much of its appeal arose from Leonardo’s technical innovations. The varnish Leonardo made for the final protective coat has darkened severely over the centuries, dulling the once-bright colors of the original. Though most of his contemporaries still used tempera (in which egg yolk is a binder agent), Leonardo adopted the oil-based paint developed in northern Europe. Oil colors were more luminous and allowed for greater precision in the final work. They also required patience, for each coat had to dry before another could be laid down. Modern X-rays of the Mona Lisa show that Leonardo applied many coats of paint, using a brush so fine that the individual strokes are virtually invisible. Finally, Leonardo employed a technique called sfumato (meaning smoky), in which the transitions of light and shade are blended subtly, as Leonardo wrote, “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke.” 40 Sfumato gave depth to the landscape in the background of the portrait, and a lifelike expression to the face of the sitter. Anyone observing the painting closely will see that the corners of the eyes and mouth are blurred, giving them a lifelike softness.
There are numerous copies of the Mona Lisa in existence, some modern but others dating to the time when the original was painted. Some critics argue that Leonardo actually painted more than one version. (If so, perhaps he fulfilled his agreement with Francesco del Giocondo and completed a portrait of his wife, but was so taken by his subject that he painted another that he continued to work on for years.) A Gioconda at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg has an exposed breast and is thought to have been painted by Leonardo’s pupil and heir, Francesco Melzi. It was not uncommon for pupils to imitate their masters’ work in this way, nor would it have been unusual for one or more copies to be made, since there was no other way to increase the audience for a work of art. Donald Sassoon, a modern historian, has written, “We know that Leonardo was widely admired during his lifetime because of the number of copies made of his works. In an age when information about a painting could travel only through written comments and the production of copies, the activities of Leonardo’s followers… functioned as an information system which contributed to the expansion of his fame.” 41
Vasari was also the first to note what has become the most commented-on feature of the painting: the smile. “Since Mona Lisa was very beautiful,” he wrote, “Leonardo employed this technique while he was painting her portrait — he had musicians who played or sang and clowns who would always make her merry in order to drive away her melancholy, which painting often brings to portraits. And in this portrait by Leonardo, there is a smile so pleasing that it seems more divine than human, and it was considered a wondrous thing that it was as lively as the smile of the living original.” 42
Vasari never saw the actual painting. One contemporary who did was Antonio de Beatis, the secretary of an influential cardinal, who kept a journal of the cardinal’s trip to France in August 1517. They visited François I in his castle at Rouen, where Leonardo lived in an adjoining residence connected by a tunnel. De Beatis wrote that Leonardo showed his visitors three paintings, one the portrait of a “Florentine lady.” He describes them as “tucti perfectissimi” (“all of the greatest perfection”). 43
A century later, when the painting was at Fontainebleau, the royal château that François I had renovated and expanded, Cassiano del Pozzo, an Italian scholar, came to view it. He wrote of it afterward as “the best-known work of this painter, because she lacks only the power of speech.” 44More important, he called the painting La Gioconda, confirming the sitter’s identity as Lisa Gherardini, who at the age of sixteen, in 1495, had married Francesco del Giocondo of Florence. The identification has been challenged over the years, but most authorities agree that the portrait is of this particular woman, who would have been in her mid-twenties when she sat for Leonardo.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715), the painting occupied a place of honor in the king’s personal gallery at the grand residence he built at Versailles. His successor, Louis XV (reigned 1715–74), however, preferred the more erotic, openly joyful works of such artists as Fragonard and Boucher and sent Leonardo’s work to hang ignominiously in the office of the keeper of the royal buildings. In 1750, the king’s courtiers selected the 110 best works of art in his collection for an exhibition. La Joconde was not included.
After the Revolution, the former royal palace known as the Louvre became a gallery open to all citizens, who could view the treasures formerly owned by kings and nobility. In 1797 the Mona Lisa was chosen to be one of the works displayed there. Ironically, Fragonard, once the court favorite, was now a lowly employee of the new regime’s artistic policy makers and was assigned to transport the Mona Lisa from Versailles to the Louvre. It didn’t remain there long, for when Napoleon Bonaparte took power, he ordered the painting to be hung in his bedroom. Later, after the Louvre was renamed the Musée Napoléon, he allowed the painting to be returned to public display. He was the last to enjoy such a personal relationship with the portrait until someone carried her off in August 1911.
Tastes in art ebb and flow, and in the early part of the nineteenth century the Mona Lisa was not regarded with the same awe it enjoys today. Nor was Leonardo himself universally esteemed. William Hazlitt, an English critic, wrote in 1817 that Leonardo “vitiated his paintings with too much science.” 45 At midcentury, a committee of experts was asked to give a monetary value to the Louvre’s works. The Mona Lisa was valued highly, at 90,000 francs, but well below works by other masters. Two of Raphael’s paintings, for example, were given price tags of 400,000 and 600,000 francs. 46
The audience for fine art had previously been restricted exclusively to those who were able to travel to museums to view the works on display, and to the even fewer people who could afford to buy such works. But after about 1840, technological developments, such as photography and new printing techniques, made it possible to mass-produce reproductions of fine art. Critics who had previously confined themselves merely to describing and evaluating works of art expanded their role. For now that anyone could view fine art for themselves, critics needed to justify their superior position by taking on the role of popular interpreter.
Nevertheless, literary artists popularized Mona Lisa before the art critics did. The Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote of “Mona Lisa, on whose eyes / A painter for whole years might gaze.” 47 The Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules, popular French novelists of the mid-nineteenth century, described a hero’s mistress: “All women are enigmas, but she is the most mysterious of them all… and wears, like an enchanted mask, the smile full of night of the Gioconda.” 48
Théophile Gautier (1811–72), a prolific French author of novels, poems, travel books, and criticism, waxed ecstatic over the portrait of Mona Lisa. In a review of an 1855 play titled La Joconde (though the subject matter did not concern the real-life Mona Lisa), he began, “La Joconde!This name makes me think immediately of this sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, and who seems to pose a yet unresolved riddle to the admiring centuries.” 49 A dozen years later, writing a guide to the Louvre, he recalled those words and added, “I have seen her frequently, since then, this adorable Joconde. She is always there smiling with sensuality, mocking her numerous lovers. She has the serene countenance of a woman sure that she will remain beautiful for ever and certain to be greater than the ideal of poets and artists.” 50
Shortly afterward, in an essay published in November 1869, a thirty-year-old English critic, Walter Pater, offered his own paean to the Mona Lisa. “La Gioconda is, in the truest sense, Leonardo’s masterpiece,” Pater wrote. Expanding on Gautier’s observations, he noted “the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work.… From childhood we see this image defining itself on the fabric of his dreams; and but for express historical testimony, we might fancy that this was but his ideal lady embodied and beheld at last.”51 It was a thought later taken up by a certain Viennese physician.
Only a year before the Mona Lisa was stolen, Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of the new science of psychology, wrote a small book titled Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. In his notebooks, Leonardo had described a recurrent dream that he had, and dreams were to Freud significant indicators of the psyche. Like the scientists who were finding a new physical world — atoms, X-rays, quanta — previously hidden from view, so Freud sought to uncover secrets of the mind below the level of consciousness.
Leonardo had been born in Vinci, a small town near Florence, in 1452, the illegitimate son of a woman named Caterina; his father was Piero da Vinci, a notary who worked for the Signoria of Florence. Though Piero married another woman in the year of Leonardo’s birth, he acknowledged the boy as his son and later brought him into his household. Leonardo’s earliest years, however, were spent with Caterina.
Freud, like Pater, found the enigmatic smile not only in the Mona Lisa but in other paintings by Leonardo, notably St. John the Baptist and Virgin and Child with St. Anne. The smile, Freud wrote, “has produced the most powerful and confusing effect on whoever looks at it.” 52 He felt that it held special meaning for the artist, because he used it several times, and surmised that when he first encountered it on the face of Lisa, the model for Mona Lisa, “it awoke something in him which had for long lain dormant in his mind — probably an old memory.” It was, Freud concluded, “the smile of bliss and rapture which had once played on his mother’s lips as she fondled him.” 53 The recurring dream Leonardo described was of the tail of a bird striking his mouth over and over. That image, Freud suggested, may well have been caused by the memory of his mother kissing him.
Freud thought that Leonardo was a homosexual, though the only proof for this is that the artist never married and was once accused in court of practicing sodomy, a charge he was cleared of. Couching his argument in genteel terms, Freud said that at the time Leonardo encountered his mother’s smile on the face of the real-life Mona Lisa, he
had for long been under the dominance of an inhibition which forbade him ever again to desire such caresses from the lips of women. But he had become a painter, and therefore he strove to reproduce the smile with his brush, giving it to all his pictures.… The figures [in the pictures, including Leda, John the Baptist, and Bacchus, as well as Mona Lisa]… gaze in mysterious triumph, as if they knew of a great achievement of happiness, about which silence must be kept. The familiar smile of fascination leads one to guess that it is a secret of love. It is possible that in these figures Leonardo has denied the unhappiness of his erotic life 54 and has triumphed over it in his art, by representing the wishes of the boy, infatuated with his mother, as fulfilled in this blissful union of the male and female natures. 55
Perhaps following Freud’s lead, others began to speculate that love must hold the secret behind the theft. Just as Napoleon had hung the painting in his bedroom, so perhaps now someone had felt such desire for the portrait that he had stolen it. Indeed, Leonardo himself had told the story of such a man, who conceived a carnal love for one of the artist’s other works: “Such is the power of a painting over a man’s mind that he may be enchanted and enraptured by a painting that does not represent any living woman,” Leonardo wrote. “It previously happened to me that I made a picture representing a holy subject, which was bought by someone who loved it and who wished to remove the attributes of divinity in order that he might kiss it without guilt. But finally his conscience overcame his sighs and lust, and he was forced to banish it from his house.” 56
Contributing to the speculation along these lines was the fact that shortly before the theft, the Louvre had received a postcard addressed to the Mona Lisa. It was a “red-hot love declaration, peppered with ‘I love you’s’ and ‘I adore you’s.’” 57 It raised the possibility that the theft had been the work of an erotomaniac, someone obsessed enough with the subject of the painting that he might steal it. The employees of the Louvre now recalled that a young man, blond with blue eyes, would come almost every day to stand enraptured in front of the Mona Lisa as if he could not drag himself away. Clearly, this person should be high on the list of suspects. But no one knew his name.
The editor of Le Temps found this idea appealing enough to ask Dr. Georges Dumas, professor of experimental psychology at the Sorbonne, to write about the psychology of the thief. Dumas eagerly responded to the suggestion. “As to the mentality of such a thief,” he wrote, “one will find it described in medical works, where such lunatics are called fetishists, who tremble in the presence of beauty and become obsessed by it, often showing much ingenuity and energy in obtaining symbols of such beauty. Such a person would have carried Mona Lisa to his rooms trembling with joy, gloating over the possession like a miser, perhaps in frenzy injuring the picture. When at last his insane passion spends its force he may return the picture to the Louvre.” 58 However, Dumas added ominously, there was the possibility that the thief would take pleasure in “mutilating, stabbing, and defiling” it.
Dumas, like Professor Reiss, was assuming the role of a criminal profiler, even though such an occupation did not exist at that time. He was making an educated guess, based on the new science of psychology. Fiction writers, who had employed psychology for a much longer time than psychologists, adopted his theory and elaborated on it.
“Le harem des images,” a 1913 short story by the writer Jules Bois, has as its central character John Lewis. Like J. P. Morgan, Lewis is an American millionaire, but one who, unlike Morgan, steals his art treasures instead of purchasing them. (Perhaps, to French readers, stealing them was morally no different from buying them, as long as they ended up in the hands of uncivilized Americans.) In the story, Lewis has created a private museum in his Paris apartment, where he displays for his own enjoyment artistic treasures that he has stolen from European collections. The narrator of the tale lets the reader know that Lewis’s motivation is that he suffers from a sexual compulsion when he is confronted by artistic renditions of female beauty. He has, in other words, created a “harem” of painted and sculpted women who are his sexual captives. Mona Lisa is only his latest, and greatest, possession. Eventually, when he tires of his captives, he returns them.
“Within a few years,” the narrator of “Le harem des images” tells the reader, “Leonardo’s marvel will be returned to the Louvre. Until then, may every Sherlock Holmes exhaust his imagination!” 59
Sherlock Holmes, of course, was a fictional detective, but his combination of intuitive brilliance and scientific precision was indeed what was required, for the search for a solution to the Mona Lisa theft would involve science as much as art. To probe its secrets, the painting had earlier been photographed with magnifying lenses and even X-rayed, revealing that Leonardo had rearranged the position of the hands before settling on the final version. The pattern of craquelure — cracks that had appeared on the surface of the paint over time — had also been photographed. Since this pattern was impossible to duplicate, it was thought to be a guarantee against any copy’s being used to replace the original.
But of course the theft raised issues that were uncanny and immeasurable. It was Pater who came closest to expressing the strange atmosphere that emanates from the figure in the painting:
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 trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one.… Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea. 60
Pater’s essay made him famous and made the Mona Lisa seem more than merely a painting — it was a nearly living thing, eternal and bewitching, and now it was gone.