As Donald Sassoon emphasizes in Becoming Mona Lisa, the Mona Lisa has managed to maintain its status as the world’s most recognizable work of art. The author notes that many who visit the portrait find themselves wondering just what makes it so special. The lady in the portrait is not particularly beautiful and the painting itself is beginning to look its age. Yet despite all this, art historians continue to write and argue over the painting, and tourists continue to visit it in droves.
Sassoon suggests that historians continue to be drawn to the painting because of the mystery surrounding the identity of the Mona Lisa. He claims that because the media pounces on any hint at the Mona Lisa’s real identity, art historians are motivated to continue investigating it and keeping it relevant. Even people, who are not art historians, are attracted to the Mona Lisa because of her mysteries, such as her identity, the secret of her smile, the unusual position of her wrist and her apparent lack of eyebrows.
While this may have been the case centuries ago, I believe that the Mona Lisa’s popularity cannot be attributed to them any longer. After so much time, the mysteries surrounding the Mona Lisa, while continuing to be explored by the ever-hopeful historians, have for the most part been deemed as unsolvable and simply serve to contribute to the portrait’s charm. I believe there are other factors, such as the Mona Lisa’s change in status from art to a cultural icon and humanity’s fascination with celebrity and fame, which are much more powerful motivators.
I will explore these factors in my response. First, I argue that the Mona Lisa, while still respected by many as a work of art, has become, by its appearance in the media, a pop culture icon. As such, it is referenced with ease in songs, such as Nat King Cole’s, “Mona Lisa”, and movies, such as “Mona Lisa Smile”. The Mona Lisa has also made numerous appearances in ad campaigns. Many ad campaigns take advantage of the popularity of the Mona Lisa by making something markedly different about her. Their unexpected takes on the Mona Lisa are intended to be humorous.
For example, an advertisement for the Audi Q7, shows a full-body portrait of the Mona Lisa, instead of the half-length it actually is, with the tagline “A masterpiece with much more”. An advertisement for Pantene Time-Removal shows the Mona Lisa sporting luscious hair underneath her veil, with the tagline, “Restores age-damaged hair”. These advertisements take advantage of changing what the viewer is expecting and turning it around to produce a humorous effect. Not only has the Mona Lisa herself become a cultural icon, but the secret of her smile has also become an easily recognizable trope.
An advertisement for Caramilk, produced in 1973 and inducted into the Clio Hall of Fame, shows “Da Vinci” painting the Mona Lisa and discussing Caramilk chocolate. When Mona gets her hand on some of the chocolate and tastes it, her iconic smile comes over her face as Da Vinci tells her to hold the pose. A more recent ad by McDonald’s also features a frustrated Da Vinci trying to get his model Mona to smile for her portrait. The pouty Mona Lisa sneaks a bite of a McDonald’s Big Mac and the immediately recognizable smile lights up her face.
Both of these advertisements produce a humorous effect by pretending to solve the world-renowned mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. All of these advertisements highlight the Mona Lisa’s status as a pop culture icon. The Mona Lisa’s status as a pop culture icon, rather than its status as a beautiful work of art, is responsible for her continued popularity. Sassoon states that despite the fact that flash photography of the Mona Lisa is prohibited, tourists consistently take pictures of it. Even the guards who are supposed to protect the portrait have for the most part, given up.
This type of behavior is not indicative of the respect and care expected to be shown to a delicate work of art, rather it is the type of behavior exhibited around celebrities and members of the royal family. The image of the Mona Lisa is widely available, so the aim of these pictures is not to take away yet another exactly image of the Mona Lisa. Instead, the photograph is meant to capture the visitor’s experience of being near an object that is so famous and well-known. The Mona Lisa, by becoming pop culture icon, has lost some of its significance as a work of art, but has ensured its place in history forever.