1,000 Words: The death of Mona Lisa

Thanks to Scott Reyburn, of the New York Times, today’s 1,000 Words comes with words.

In his essay today, Reyburn says the Mona Lisa has ceased to exist as a work of art, imprisoned by its reputation as the greatest work of art in history. It is a photo op now, he writes.

Most of the people crowded around it in its Paris museum now merely take pictures of it, and this is the way the digital generation experiences art.

The goal is not so much to experience the art as it is to document that you were there.

The value of art is reduced by the ability to reproduce it, he says.

“It’s very underwhelming. It’s small and dark,” Katie Qian, 33, an engineer from Salt Lake City, said after seeing the “Mona Lisa” for the second time in her life.

Christie’s, by contrast, offered viewers a quasi-religious experience at the pre-auction viewing of the much-restored panel painting “Salvator Mundi,” which had recently, not incontrovertibly, been re-attributed to Leonardo. The auction house, with the help of the advertising agency Droga5, promoted what it called “The Last da Vinci” with a video of people moved to tears by the painting. It went on to sell for an all-time high of $450.3 million.

“The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art,” Mr. Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing,” “is ultimately dependent on their market value” and “has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.”

  • MrE85

    I think almost everyone is surprised how small and dark it is, after seeing reproductions of that image all our lives.

    Scott Reyburn sounds like an old man waving his cane and shouting “You’re doing art wrong!!!”

  • Mike Worcester

    I will be at the Louvre this summer. I plan on looking at Ms. Lisa. And I plan on taking a photo also (no flash of course!). To me, taking a photo is a way of commemorating the experience. Like taking a photo of the Eiffel Tower. Or the Arc de Triumph. Or even Jim Morrison’s grave site. I want a memory from the trip that will last longer than my brain’s memory.

    • I usually save ticket stubs, too.


      I hope you have a good time in Paris, it’s a great city.

    • Jeff

      Euro Disney!

    • KariBemidji

      My plan too for the summer. And striking the balance between my phone and soaking it all in with all my senses.

  • Carol S.

    On my visit to the Louve many years ago, I stood in that crowd and looked at that painting. Reflecting later on, I wished I had spent more time looking at all the wonderful, nearly ignored art elsewhere in the museum and not wasted my time on a painting I had seen a million photos of and was practially postage stamp sized. My advice now to anyone visiting the Louve is to not bother with it.

    • Sergio Robert Andrade Jr.

      I think it’s interesting to look at the actual painting of the Mona Lisa as a different art piece to the display of it. Art is meant to elicit human emotions and the display of the Mona Lisa is infamous for eliciting the reaction of “disappointment.” I think it should be considered a distinct art piece from the painting alone. If that makes sense…

    • >>I had seen a million photos of and was practially postage stamp sized.<<

      Agreed, it was much smaller than I had imagined.

      I went on a "free" day where everyone and their sister goes to the Louvre. I went there to see the "three women" as I call them: Mona Lisa, Venus, and Winged Victory.

      The mob that day was huge and I retired to view works by the Flemish masters, which was practically deserted.

      /The Louvre was fine, but I liked the Musée d'Orsay better: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/home.html

      • Ralphy

        Completely agree.
        I would add Musee de l’Orangerie and Rodin’s Garden.
        Breathtaking art and serenely uncrowded.

    • Jared

      I completely agree, I walked past it so I “saw it” but I didn’t enter the room because I didn’t want to deal with the crowd. I think I spent more time looking at the architecture than displayed works of art, it’s really a beautiful building from what I recall.

  • Sergio Robert Andrade Jr.

    “The value of art is reduced by the ability to reproduce it”

    I hate this sentiment. You should never value something because of other people’s ability to not experience it. Scarcity is not an attribute of quality. That sort of attitude is holding us back from taking the next steps we need to evolve as a society. We need to help each other and exposing different people to art and reproducing it makes it more valuable by letting more people have their own interpretation of the piece. You can’t keep art to yourself, it belongs to humanity.

    -A bleeding heart Historian

  • Brian Simon

    [The mona lisa is] “imprisoned by its reputation as the greatest work of art in history. It is a photo op now”

    Is this new? I think i still have a 110 picture of the mona lisa from 1985 or so. We rushed into the louvre, first thing, bee-lining to the portrait to beat the crowds. It was already under glass by then, and is rather small. Underwhelming is an apt description.

  • ec99

    My advice when going to any of these places (Louvre, Prado, National Gallery, et al.) is to set aside several days for visits. Even then, you’ll only see a small selection of what’s there.

  • Postal Customer

    That dude stole it over a hundred years ago. The Mona Lisa has always been a photo op, even to the analogue generation.

  • Patricia Fair

    I was at the Louvre earlier this year. About 20% of the people in the crowd and 40% of those closest to the rope barrier had their backs to the Mona Lisa, taking a selfie. Totally oblivious to others trying to get a look. But that was not unique to the Louvre. Also dead: common courtesy.

  • crystals

    I admit I just did something similar when I saw the portraits of President & Mrs. Obama at the Smithsonian; I took a few photos on my phone. But then I also stood back and watched others approach the paintings and the profound joy they sparked in people. I’ll always have the snaps for myself, but what I’ll remember most is how I saw others – one black woman in particular – react when they saw them for the first time.

    I guess my point (and hope) is you can both take the photo AND remember the moment. It doesn’t have to be either/or.