It’s not every day you get to see the Mona Lisa in person. And for those of you who’ve been to The Louvre, you know it takes about a day to find the room where the Mona Lisa hangs and then a half day to wiggle your way to the front of the crowd to catch sight of the iconic painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
When my daughter and I visited Paris a few weeks ago and came face to face with the painting, we were in awe. Not of its artistry but of the power of one small painting of a Florentine housewife named Lisa Gherardini to fascinate millions of people worldwide, to cause heartbreak, suicide and spats among family members as they argue over whether it’s worth the foot blisters to find the little painting tucked in a bulletproof glass case. Let’s face it – and please forgive me art aficionados, historians and relatives of the da Vinci and Gherardini families: The Mona Lisa is not the prettiest painting in the Louvre. It’s not even the prettiest painting in that room. The Wedding Feast at Cana on the other side of the room is quite impressive.
What is fascinating is the story behind the painting: the mystery of this young woman, that interesting smile and why da Vinci chose to paint her of all people. What’s kept us talking about this for more than 500 years is the story behind this 1503 painting, the interpretation upon interpretation of every aspect of the painting, including whether the subject really is Lisa Gherardini. “The emotions, the intelligence, the obvious wit that [da Vinci] captured are what make Lisa’s face so alive and so fascinating to us,” notes Dianne Hales in her new book “Mona Lisa”. That people of all sentiments and backgrounds are so passionate about this work of art is not enough to create the phenomenon. It’s the story of the subject herself, the narrative of the making of the painting, and the tale of its journey that positions the Mona Lisa as the most buzzworthy subjects ever, even accounting for the Kardashians.
I have read so many stories about Mona Lisa that when I actually view the painting I see one of the greatest stories ever told. Beyond the canvas, the Mona Lisa stirs mystery, empathy, infatuation, love, curiosity. She is approachable, yet hard to get. And she might not even be the she we think she is. She is smiling but she clearly knows more than I do. Which brings me back to reality. I don’t know much about art, clearly, but I do know that if you want to create something with appeal that is cherished for centuries (or even for this fiscal year), make sure your subject is interesting. Choose a subject that is unconventional. Make sure your story palette has the right colors and your canvas the right texture. Make it so good people will want to steal it, as was the case with the Mona Lisa which was stolen from the Louvre back in 1911. That, by the way, was great PR for the painting, as it brought a community together as they grieved and awaited its return. The thief’s defense was that he fell in love with Mona Lisa. “I fell victim to her smile.”
Take a look at the stories you tell, the messages you convey, the pictures you paint of your brand. Can you find your Mona Lisa? She might be staring right at you.
— Diane Schwartz