Napoleon Slept with Mona Lisa

Well, not in the same bed, but she did spend some years in his bedroom. She probably didn’t mind, since she had also spent a number of years in the royal bath of a French king three hundred years previously. But neither of her highly-placed gentlemen friends were able to save her from many years of obscurity, including right through the decade of the Regency. And yet, it was her association with Bonaparte which triggered an event a hundred years after she left his bedroom which catapulted her to the great fame she enjoys today.

A few pieces of the puzzle which is the enigma of the Mona Lisa

The cause and meaning of this lady’s smile is only one of the mysteries which surrounds her to this day. Most art historians now believe the subject of the painting is Lisa Gherardini, the second wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. Formally, she would have been known as Ma donna (my lady) del Giocondo. "Ma donna" was commonly contracted to the diminutive "Monna" in everyday speech, thus she would have been called "Monna" or "Madame" Lisa. In northern Italy, where the painting was probably begun, it would have been extremely improper to call a lady "Mona," since there the word is a slang term for female genitalia. However, the misspelling has now been in use for centuries and there is little chance it will ever be corrected.

Most scholars now also agree that the Mona Lisa was probably begun in Florence, sometime in 1503 and substantially completed there sometime in 1506. It is not the last painting which was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, but it is probably the last portrait to which he put his brush. For some unknown reason, Leonardo did not present the portrait to Francesco del Giocondo, the lady’s husband, who is believed to have commissioned it. Instead, he kept it with him, eventually taking the painting to France when, in 1514, he accepted the invitation of King Francis I. Some art historians believe Leonardo continued to work on the portrait on and off until his death, in France, in 1519.

There are conflicting stories about how King Francis accomplished it, but by the 1530s he was the owner of the Mona Lisa. He proudly displayed her in the Apartments des Bains (the Royal Baths), in his favorite château at Fontainebleau. Of course, since he was the King of France, this was not a single room with a tub. In actual fact, the Apartments des Bains was a luxurious multi-chamber recreation and cultural center. Such baths had been fashionable in Italy in the early sixteenth century, and Francis I, a devotee of all things Italian, had to have his own version at Fontainebleau. This suite of six rooms consisted of a bathing room and two steam rooms, with the remaining rooms dedicated to dressing, relaxing, gaming, dalliance and conversation. The rooms of the Royal Baths were decorated with a mixture of murals with mythological themes, many of them highly erotic; numerous statues, most of them nude nymphs and satyrs; alongside a collection of the king’s most prized works of art, including the Mona Lisa. Favored visitors to the court of Francis I would be offered a tour of the baths, occasionally by the king himself.

The Mona Lisa remained a prized possession of the kings of France for two hundred years, right through the reign of Louis XIV. She traveled like a princess between the royal residences of Fontainebleau, the Louvre and Versailles, as the French kings moved about their realm. Louis XIV was particularly proud of her, showing her off to many distinguished visitors to his court. But his successor, Louis XV, did not care for her, preferring the frivolous and often frothily erotic paintings of artists like Fragonard and Boucher. Louis XV eventually banished the Mona Lisa to the office of the Directeur Général of the Bâtiments du Roi (the keeper of the royal buildings) at Versailles. Louis XVI was no more interested in her than had been his predecessor. Thus the Mona Lisa languished, on the wall of an obscure government office, barely noticed by a few bureaucrats, government officials and their cleaning women, until the French Revolution.

With the execution of Louis XVI, the Mona Lisa passed forever out of the possession of the kings of France, and became the property of the French people. The members of the National Assembly decreed that the erstwhile royal palace of the Louvre was to be converted into a museum. Here would be displayed the many masterpieces of art which now belonged to the new Republic of France. The National Assembly hoped the display of these great works of art would strengthen the standing of their new regime. It is somewhat ironic that Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the once greatly celebrated artist whose exuberant Rococo paintings pushed the Mona Lisa out of fashion, was appointed to supervise the packing of the paintings at Versailles and their transportation to Paris. With most of his patrons sent to the guillotine, he was now known as Citizen Fragonard, and with no aristocratic commissions coming his way, he took any work available, grateful to still have his head. Under his management, the Mona Lisa was carefully crated and safely delivered to the Louvre.

The new museum of the Louvre officially opened in August of 1793, with an exhibition of over 500 paintings, though the Mona Lisa was not among them. The painting was not formally transferred to the Louvre from Versailles until 1797, but the painting was never seen by visitors to the museum, since the building had been closed in 1796. The old palace was found to be structurally unsound and too dark to properly display the paintings. The Louvre would not reopen again until refurbishments were completed in 1801. And once again, the Mona Lisa was not available for display. This time she was hanging in the bedroom of the most powerful man in France, Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 1799, Napoleon returned from his failed campaign in Egypt, and by December of that year had ensured that he was elected First Consul of France. He thus solidified his military power with this new political position, and no one in France had the authority or influence to challenge him. Early in 1800, he took up residence in the Tuileries Palace, which was adjacent to the Louvre. For a plan of Napoleon’s suite in the Tuileries, visit the page A Day in the Life of Napoleon, at the Napoleonic Historical Society web site. Interestingly, though the bulk of the Tuileries Palace burned down in 1871, the northern end of the palace, which housed Napoleon’s suite, survived and is part of the Louvre even today.

Napoleon often passed through the halls of the museum as he moved about the Louvre/Tuileries complex. Early in 1800, he saw the Mona Lisa and became enamored of her, perhaps his own Italian ancestry giving him a feeling of affinity with this enigmatic Florentine lady. For whatever reason, he found her alluring and fascinating, describing her as the "Sphinx of the Occident," perhaps for her mysterious smile. Having seen the Great Sphinx on the plains of Giza only the year before, he was quite familiar with this mysterious mythological creature. Napoleon always spoke respectfully of the painting’s subject, invariably referring to her as "Madame Lisa." He ordered that the painting be removed from the Louvre in 1800, and directed that she be hung on the wall in the bedroom of his Tuileries Palace suite. For the next four years, the Mona Lisa remained in Bonaparte’s bedroom, until he crowned himself Emperor of France, in 1804. No one since has had the hubris or temerity to remove the Mona Lisa from the Louvre for their own personal pleasure.

When the Mona Lisa left Bonaparte’s bedroom, she did not go far. She was conducted across the Tuileries gardens to the Musée Napoléon, as the Louvre museum had been called since 1803. Here she was installed in the Grand Galerie, along with hundreds of other noted works of art which Bonaparte had looted from various countries on his many military campaigns. But here, "Madame Lisa" was not given pride of place. In fact, she was hung in the lowest register of the skyed display, indicating a painting considered to be only slightly more important than those hung in the upper registers and certainly not as important as those hung along the center line. But at least she was now on public display, as she had not been for nearly a hundred years.

Five years later, in 1809, the painting was cleaned and re-framed. The original frame of the painting had been removed, probably while it was in the collection of Francis I. That is believed to be when the poplar-wood panel, upon which the portrait was painted, cracked from the top down to the lady’s hairline, as it lost the support of the enclosing frame. It was known to have a carved walnut frame in the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century had acquired an ornate gilt frame in the Rococo style. In 1809, a frame in the Empire style, six inches wide, ornamented with "rich talon molding" was ordered from the "Widow Delaporte." This woman, a wood-gilder whose address was given as "Rue St. Germaine Lauxeroy, no. 19," was paid 9 francs when she delivered the new gilt frame on 29 March 1809.

The painting was also cleaned and restored, probably during the Spring of 1809, by Jean-Marie Hooghstoel, the museum’s chief of restoration. In his quarterly report, he noted he had billed for "90 days at 14 francs" plus the cost of "varnish, colors, wine spirit" for work on the "Portrait of Mona Lisa … Leonardo da Vinci." The use of wine spirit indicates that he may have removed some of the old, yellowing varnish which had been applied to the painting over the centuries. It may also explain why the lady in the portrait lost her eyebrows, if Hooghstoel was too diligent in his cleaning. The Mona Lisa’s eyebrows were mentioned by Georgio Vasari when he wrote of the painting in 1547, " … The brows could not be more natural: the hair grows thickly in one place and lightly in another following the pores of the skin. …" Yet, by the time the Mona Lisa began to achieve some fame, in the mid-nineteenth century, she had no eyebrows. A very detailed technical examination of the painting, conducted in 2005, revealed just a few fine hairs painted in the areas where her eyebrows should be, though not in the manner described by Vasari. Did Hooghstoel scrub them away? He seems the most likely suspect, since no further work has been done on the paint layer of the portrait since his 1809 "cleaning."

By the time the Prince of Wales became Regent of England, in 1811, the Mona Lisa had lost her place in Napoleon’s bedroom, and probably her eyebrows as well. No one went to the Musée Napoléon just to see the Mona Lisa, as they do today. She was hung as a lesser painting in the enormous Grand Galerie and virtually ignored for the duration of the Regency and well into the nineteenth century. This neglect was due in part to the fact that the Italian Renaissance was not yet considered an important era in the history of art. In addition, Leonardo da Vinci himself was not well-known and was not considered an important artist. Both Raphael and Michelangelo had been more prolific than he had, and they were much better known in the early nineteenth century.

Samuel F. B. Morse, the man who would later invent the telegraph and Morse code, was first a painter, and visited the Louvre in 1830. By this time, the Mona Lisa had been moved to the smaller Salon Carré. Morse painted a large painting between 1831 and 1833, called the Gallery of the Louvre, depicting a view of the Salon Carré in which the Mona Lisa is still hung in the lowest register, the second painting to the right of the door. For an interactive version of this painting, you can visit the page for the painting at the Terra Foundation web site. There, you can roll your mouse over each of the small paintings in Morse’s large one to get more details about them.

From the late eighteenth century until well past the middle of the nineteenth century, Leonardo’s most famous painting was the Last Supper, painted in 1499 as a fresco for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Of course, those with an interest in high culture and the wealth to indulge themselves traveled to Milan to see the fresco. But even those who could not afford to travel were familiar with the Last Supper because it was often routinely reproduced in inexpensive prints which circulated widely. It was the extensive distribution of such prints which made paintings known to a wide audience. But there were few if any prints of the Mona Lisa because Leonardo’s sfumato technique made the painting extremely difficult to reproduce with the engraving techniques available at the time. It was not until 1857, in Paris, that the noted Italian painter and engraver, Luigi Calamatta, produced a truly accurate engraving of the Mona Lisa.

Then, in 1858, the Mona Lisa began to get even more attention, when the French poet, art critic and journalist, Théophile Gautier, wrote about her in the magazine, L’Artiste. Gautier, born in the first year of the Regency, was also the editor of the magazine, and had been a painter before he had become a writer. He was the most popular and respected art critic in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. It was in his article in L’Artiste that Gautier became the leading proponent of the concept of La Joconde, as she was then known in France, as the mysterious woman with the strange smile. This garnered much more attention for the painting, but only inside France. She was still largely ignored by scholars and art critics in other countries, especially England.

Curiously, Napoleon’s routine plundering of cultural materials from every country he invaded had an unexpected benefit for the fame of Leonardo da Vinci. After his death, Leonardo’s now famous notebooks had been scattered, leaving no cohesive record of his writing and studies. But Bonaparte’s looters had inadvertently gathered many of them together as they pillaged the art collections and archives of Europe. This body of work was slowly being deciphered (Leonardo was left-handed and wrote many of his notes in a backward style of handwriting) and studied by scholars. As the secrets of his notebooks were slowly unlocked in the nineteenth century, Leonardo became known as a visionary man of science as well as a talented painter. This idea appealed to those living in the routine, standardized, mechanized second half of the nineteenth century. Leonardo developed what might almost be called a cult following among admirers who considered him a "natural genius." He was seen as a man who had freed himself from religious dogmas, since he never painted halos on any of his religious subjects, nor had he ever been in the pay of a pope. He had violated the law at the risk his life to dissect corpses in order to more fully understand human anatomy. He had recorded designs and plans for technological devices centuries before they were feasible. The Victorians loved him.

Yet despite Leonardo’s growing popularity, the Mona Lisa remained largely ignored in England. That began to change in 1869, when Walter Pater, an English essayist and art critic, published an article in the British Fortnightly Review. Pater’s article was on Leonardo da Vinci, and in it he stated that he considered the Mona Lisa to be Leonardo’s most important painting. Leonardo’s growing fame rubbed off on his portrait of the Florentine lady, and finally, people did go to the Louvre to see her. She even got a better spot in the Salon Carré. But she was still not the most famous painting in the world. That level of fame would only come after she escaped her kidnapper.

On 22 August 1911, a Monday, the Louvre was closed to the public. Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian and former worker at the Louvre, had hidden in the museum the Sunday night before. On that Monday morning, he donned an artist’s smock, which was the typical garb of most museum employees. Peruggia walked into the Salon Carré, removed the Mona Lisa from her frame, hid her under his smock and walked out of the museum. The theft was not discovered until the following day and it took some time to determine the painting had not been moved for cleaning or photography. There was a great hue and cry once it was determined that the painting had been stolen, but all efforts to find it failed. The Mona Lisa was big news, and once she was gone, the darling of the French. For two years there was no trace of her, and she was eventually removed from the Louvre’s catalog of paintings. Then, in Florence, in 1913, "Leonardo Vincenzo" contacted Alfredo Geri, an art dealer, with an offer of the Mona Lisa for sale. The seller was Peruggia, who was ultimately apprehended. The Mona Lisa, which had spent two years in Peruggia’s trunk, was authenticated as the original and was eventually returned to France, after taking a few weeks for a triumphant tour of Italy. Peruggia later told police that he had wanted to reclaim some of the art which Napoleon had looted from Italy and that he had chosen the Mona Lisa because she was not too big and he thought her " … the most beautiful." It is ironic that Peruggia chose one of the paintings in the Louvre which rightfully belonged to France. Though she had been a favorite of Bonaparte, she had left Italy centuries before it was subjugated and plundered by the self-proclaimed French Emperor.

The hype and hysteria surrounding the return of the painting was even more intense than had been that around her theft. Early twentieth-century communication media flashed the amazing story around the world. And so, just over a hundred years after she left Napoleon’s bedroom, the Mona Lisa was suddenly a world-famous work of art, perhaps even more famous than her erstwhile roommate. She has yet to relinquish that title. The Mona Lisa is considered the most famous and recognized painting in the world, and the Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, primarily due to all the people who flock there each year to pay homage to Leonardo’s masterpiece.

For more history of the Mona Lisa, including how she became a femme fatale at the end of the nineteenth century, the following books are most informative:

McMullen, Roy, Mona Lisa: The Picture and the Myth. Boston: Houghton Mufflin Company, 1975.

Mohen, Jean-Pierre, et. al., Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2006.

Sassoon, Donald, Leonardo and the Mona Lisa Story. New York: An Overlook, Duckworth/Madison Press Book, 2006.

Sassoon, Donald, Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001.

Storey, Mary Rose, Mona Lisas. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Napoleon Slept with Mona Lisa

  1. Found your write to be very well researched and informative…thank you for sharing..kj

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