Jenkins recalls his father’s aesthetic tastes: “He never stood in front of the Mona Lisa without remarking that, in the eyes of trivial people, the chief interest of Leonardo’s masterpiece was to have once been stolen from the Louvre.” [TK 58/53]
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) painted the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1506. In the last century, it has become the most famous painting in world, so much so that when Anne Umfraville, at Sir Magnus’ dinner party, boasts of being compared to it, we are immediately reminded of her superficiality. However, the painting was less well-known for the first 500 years of its existence. Leonardo brought it to France in 1516 and sold it to King Francis I. It was placed in the Louvre at the time of the French Revolution, hung for at time in Napoleon’s bedroom, and later returned to the Louvre. In the 1860s Leonardo received increasing critical acclaim and by 1878 Baedeker listed the painting among the Louvre’s attractions; however, it was far from a world-wide icon.
On August 21, 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre. On September 7, 1911 the gendarmes detained the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire as a suspect. Apollinaire had previously suggested burning down the Louvre. They soon also arrested Pablo Picasso. Picasso was released after brief retention, but Apollinaire was jailed for almost a week and remained a suspect for months. The painting was recovered in 1913 when one of the thieves, a Louvre employee and Italian patriot, rather than a modern artist, tried to sell it to a Florentine art dealer.
We barely registered this mention of Mona Lisa when we first read it, but now that we know the back story, we see it as another instance of Powell’s interest in how tastes change.
The role of Apollinaire and Picasso in the story reminds us that the growing adulation of Leonardo occurred simultaneously with Modernism’s influence on changing perceptions of artists generally. The artist who is credited with making the Mona Lisa was a polymath perfectionist genius, stationed well above the rest of humanity. The doubting public did not yet recognize the genius of Picasso or of Apollinaire and increasingly saw modern artists as madcap pranksters willing to undertake any outrage to bring publicity to their own careers. To the conservative critics and the uninitiated masses, ever suspicious of charlatanism, an assault on the Mona Lisa was emblematic of Modernism’s assault on the artistic verities of the past. And they were right to be worried: only a few years later Marcel Duchamp was to exhibit “L.H.O.O.Q.”