Mona Lisa — Becoming Great

August 8, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Carol Gillot, at her Paris Breakfasts blog, had a post about visiting the Louvre. When she was last there, she sketched some of the art works and added,”It was very common back in the day to copy paintings at the Louvre.” As evidence, she included this 1833 painting of a man (lower left) and a woman (center) each copying one of the many renaissance paintings in the room.

One of the commenters on the blog noted how difficult it was now to see the Mona Lisa. She was right.

Of course. The Mona Lisa is the greatest painting in the world, or at least one of them, and certainly the most famous.  

But take another look at that 1833 painting. Look at the lowest row of paintings, especially the one in the middle of the canvas.

Yes, it’s the Mona Lisa. Two hundred years ago, it wasn’t the greatest painting in the world. It was just another very good renaissance painting, good enough to merit a place in the Louvre, But it was not as great as the Titian portrait of Francis 1, which has a position two canvasses higher and closer to eye level.

And now she sits in her own separate room, roped off from the masses who flock to see her beauty and to experience the greatness of the painting. In two centuries, Mona Lisa has raised her game considerably.

Of course that’s ridiculous. The painting didn’t change. But what did? The conventional explanation is that the greatness was always there but that art critics and ordinary people came to perceive and appreciate that greatness only later.

Aside from the arrogance — assuming that we are better at art appreciation than were people in the 19th century — this explanation ignores the social component of tastes and evaluations. Duncan Watts, in Everything Is Obvious ... Once You Know the Answer argues brilliantly and convincingly that the Mona Lisa’s rise to the top depended on two things – luck and cumulative advantage. Luck — in 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre. When it was recovered two years later, it was shown all over Italy, and its arrival back at the Louvre was widely covered in the media (or as it was called then the press).

As a result, critics turned their attention to the painting, pointing out all the qualities that made it great and that made the theft and recovery so important. Other people would read these accounts and see for themselves how great the painting was. The snowballing cycle of fame and attention, what social scientists call cumulative advantage, raised Mona Lisa’s position on the charts in much the same way that a song becomes a hit. As it becomes more popular, it gets more air play, and that air play makes the song more familiar and popular, further pushing it up the charts.

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This is much too brief a treatment of Watts’s essay. His tour of artistic successes has stops at the Billboard charts and Harry Potter, all with the same insight. It’s not the qualities inherent in a book, song, or painting that account for its success. There are lots of similar works, indistinguishable in quality, that we’ve never heard of. It’s the lucky break and cumulative advantage that take it from just another painting to GOAT.