Mona Lisa: Art History's Ultimate Muse

For centuries, the Mona Lisa has served as a source of inspiration for artists around the world. Now that an early replica has changed hands for a high price, we took a closer look at this phenomenon.

Leonardo da Vinci (14 - 1519), Mona Lisa, around 1503-05, oil / poplar wood, 77 × 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo in the public domain (detail)
Leonardo da Vinci (14 - 1519), Mona Lisa, around 1503-05, oil / poplar wood, 77 × 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo in the public domain (detail)

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa has been copied practically from the time it was created. Famous copies include the Prado Mona Lisa at the Museo Prado in Madrid, said to be made by student of Leonardo's, such as Andrea Salai or Francesco Melzi, during the master’s lifetime, and the Isleworth Mona Lisa, rumored to be a copy by Leonardo himself.

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Leonardo sold his original Mona Lisa shortly before his death to the French king Francis I, who had been his last patron and had brought him to France. The now world-famous painting thus became part of the royal collection and was initially kept in the castles of Amboise and Fontainebleau before it came to the Louvre in the 17th century.

Italian school of the early 17th century (successor to Leonardo da Vinci), The Hekking Mona Lisa, oil / canvas, 79.5 x 47 cm. Photo © Christie's
Italian school of the early 17th century (successor to Leonardo da Vinci), The Hekking Mona Lisa, oil / canvas, 79.5 x 47 cm. Photo © Christie's

In the 17th century, part of the training of an artist was to copy the works of great masters, often from the royal collection. Of course, the Mona Lisa served as a template. One such replica from the early 17th century was auctioned off at Christie's in an online auction in June, achieving €2.9 million ($3.4 million).

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Follower of Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 17th century, oil / canvas, 73.5 x 53.3 cm. Photo © Sotheby's
Follower of Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 17th century, oil / canvas, 73.5 x 53.3 cm. Photo © Sotheby's

This makes this painting the most expensive replica of the Mona Lisa that has ever been auctioned according to Barnebys' price database. Previously the record was held by another 17th century replica that had been auctioned at Sotheby's in New York for $1.6 million in 2019.

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But over the centuries, the Mona Lisa has not just been copied. Over the course of the 20th century, she has developed more and more into a world-famous icon and artistic muse.

Many artists have been inspired by her and created their own works based on Leonardo's famous painting. Here, we took a closer look at some of them in Barnebys' database.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Colored Mona Lisa, 1963, screen print and graphite / canvas, 319.7 x 208.6 cm, signed and dated. Photo © Christie's
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Colored Mona Lisa, 1963, screen print and graphite / canvas, 319.7 x 208.6 cm, signed and dated. Photo © Christie's

The most expensive artistic interpretation of the Mona Lisa is by Andy Warhol. Warhol began to deal with screen printing in the 1960s and explored repetition in his art. With a postcard of the Mona Lisa, he created various works, the most well-known being Thirty Are Better Than One. In 2015, his Colored Mona Lisa was auctioned at Christie's for around $56 million.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), LHOOQ, 1919/1958, graphite / reproduction, 24.5 x 15.2 cm, signed and dated. Photo © Christie's
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), LHOOQ, 1919/1958, graphite / reproduction, 24.5 x 15.2 cm, signed and dated. Photo © Christie's

The ready-mades by Marcel Duchamp were an important precursor to Andy Warhol's Pop Art. In 1919, the 400th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to a printed reproduction of the Mona Lisa and titled his work LHOOQ. The French pun ( Elle a chaud au cul = “You have a hot ass") suggests a woman with a strong sexual appetite. Over the years, Duchamp made several versions of LHOOQ, with the most expensive one to date fetching €922,000 at Christie's in October 2019.

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Fernando Botero (* 1932), Mona Lisa, 1959, oil / canvas, 163.8 x 130.8 cm, signed. Photo © Christie's
Fernando Botero (* 1932), Mona Lisa, 1959, oil / canvas, 163.8 x 130.8 cm, signed. Photo © Christie's

In 1959, the Colombian artist Fernando Botero took the Mona Lisa and created a series of paintings depicting the Renaissance lady at a young age. The pictures were an important step for Botero on the way to the voluminous figures for which he is famous today. Another work from this series, Mona Lisa, Aged 12 (1959), was also the first ever that he was able to sell to a major museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This version, which was sold at Christie's in 2018 for $1 million, shows a still childlike Mona Lisa in a pink dress and with a bow in her hair that replaces the veil.

Related: The Enduring Appeal of Old Masters

René Magritte (1898-1967), La Joconde, 1960, oil / canvas, 69.5 x 49.5cm, signed and dated. Photo © Sotheby's
René Magritte (1898-1967), La Joconde, 1960, oil / canvas, 69.5 x 49.5cm, signed and dated. Photo © Sotheby's

When surrealist René Magritte painted his version of the Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (the Italian name of the painting) in 1960 , he wasn't even aware of it. It was the art historian Suzi Gablik, who lived with Magritte for a few months, who came up with the title. Later that decade, Magritte selected some of his paintings to create bronze sculptures based on them. One of them was La Joconde. These sculptures fetch prices of up to $2 million on the auction market. The 1960 painting sold for £2.5 million at Sotheby's in 2011.

Related: Surrealism and the Subconscious

Banksy (*1974), Mona Lisa, 2000, spray paint / board, 122 x 122cm, stencil signature. Photo © Christie's
Banksy (*1974), Mona Lisa, 2000, spray paint / board, 122 x 122cm, stencil signature. Photo © Christie's

Our final example is a continuation of the Duchamp and Warhol versions. In 2000, Banksy represented the Leonardo work after he moved from Bristol to London and discovered the use of stencils for his street art. His Mona Lisa, which changed hands at Christie's for £731,250 in 2019, was also created using a stencil and spray paint. In his usual ironic way, Banksy turned the icon into victim and perpetrator at the same time. In 2004, Banksy had secretly hung a Mona Lisa with a smiley face between the paintings in the Louvre.

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And what about the real Mona Lisa? The Louvre will probably never part with it - even if it wanted to. The painting is the property of the French state and is therefore not for sale. An offer to buy Mona Lisa to benefit French cultural industry, which was hurting financially a result of the pandemic, was recently made by an entrepreneur whose purchase price was 50 billion euros. 

Who could spend that much money? Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, of course. A petition - possibly not meant to be very serious - even went a step further and demanded that the richest person in the world not only buy the painting, but also eat it.

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