On January 9, 1963, the National Gallery of Art in Washington first displayed the “Mona Lisa,” if you’ve ever heard of it. The painting had already been seen by a group of VIPs the night before, including Jacqueline Kennedy, who spearheaded the effort to get it to America.
Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th-century masterpiece, the Mona Lisa or La Gioconda, had never been leant to a foreign nation before it visited the shores of the U.S. The History Channel did a piece on the loan in 2013, the 50th anniversary of its visit, and Kennedy’s work to make French president Charles de Gaulle loosen his grip on the cultural touchstone. In May of 1961, newly elected President Kennedy went with his wife to meet de Gaulle, meetings that allegedly did not go so well for him. Enter Jacqueline, a fluent French speaker, her charm supposedly able to soften France’s leader and its cultural minister, Andre Malraux.
Malraux came to visit the U.S. and the Kennedys about a year later, and while accompanying him on a private tour of the National Gallery of Art, Jackie expressed her hope that the Mona Lisa would one day smile on D.C. It was a difficult proposition. The early half of the 20th century had been unkind to Madame Lisa. According to the History Channel:
In August 1911, the painting had been stolen right off of the museum’s walls, in what’s been called the greatest art theft of the 20th century. For two years, a worldwide search turned up nothing. Finally, in 1913, Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the museum, was arrested after trying to sell the painting to an art dealer in his native Italy. Peruggia claimed he had simply planned to return the painting to its rightful Italian home, but most historians believe he was involved in a far bigger conspiracy to sell a series of counterfeit versions of the Mona Lisa—passed off as the original—to unsuspecting buyers around the world. That wasn’t La Giaconda’s only close call. During both World War I and II the painting had to be spirited away to prevent it from falling into German hands. And just six years before the announcement of the loan to the United States, parts of the painting were damaged by two separate vandalism attacks, just months apart.
Here’s a photo of La Gioconda after it was returned to the School of Fine Arts in Paris after one of its many misadventures, circa 1919:
Even the National Art Gallery’s director, John Walker, didn’t want the painting to hang in his halls. As the party who would be held responsible should something happen to it, he was reluctant to go along with Jackie’s plan and tried to talk her out of it. Eventually both Walker and Malraux agreed to her wishes and Mona Lisa’s journey was put in motion. She was loaded into a temperature controlled container and then onto an ocean liner, on which passengers threw Mona Lisa-themed parties though her presence aboard was supposed to be a secret. After landing in New York City on December 19, 1962, she received suitable escort to D.C.:
The January 8 VIP opening was a roaring success—if that’s what you call an overwhelming shitshow. The New York Times reported the next day that the sound level was intense and the public address system was malfunctioning. Television lights made it difficult to see. Malraux appeared “shocked” and President Kennedy seemed “angry” that he had to shout above the noisemakers.
The History Channel says that President Kennedy mentioned the “historic bonds between the two nations that stretched back to their respective revolutions—open, democratic revolutions” when thanking France, a reminder of the Cold War that had been intensifying since the Fall of 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The NYT quoted several visitors to the D.C. exhibit, who seemed disappointed by the Mona Lisa’s size. One patron stated, “Why, it’s no bigger than a 21-inch television screen,” while a woman in a fur coat whispered, “I liked it better when it was in Paris.” For the many without the opportunity to go to Paris, staring at the small dark surface of Mona Lisa’s enigmatic face is likely a cherished memory:
In the 27 days it hung in D.C., more than 518,000 visitors came to see it. The painting was returned safely to France, after a month-long stop off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Decades later, the Metropolitan director Thomas Hoving, who was a curator in the Medieval wing at the time, admitted that disaster was narrowly averted during the painting’s exhibition:
I came to work a little before nine, dashed to the Western European Arts to study my gorgeous acquisition. Only to find that Murray Pease, the head of the conservation studio and his assistant Kate Lefferts, along with the officials from the Louvre in charge of the Leonardo portrait, were rushing around with towels.
The security for the Mona Lisa was novel. The painting was set on an easel in the center of the storeroom with lights trained on it. Guards, taking shifts through the night, watched a black and white TV monitor outside the storeroom proper. No one ever discovered why but sometime during the night one of the fire sprinklers in the ceiling broke its glass ampoule and the masterpiece of painting and the masterwork of ivory carving had both been gently rained upon.
It took me a minute to realize that the cross was moist but undamaged. The Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre official, was okay too. He told me that the thick glass covering it had acted like an effective “impermeable,” a handy dandy raincoat. The rainstorm was never mentioned to the outside world.
That was probably for the best.