How The Mona Lisa Became A Cultural Icon

The theft of the world’s most famous painting

Christopher P Jones
4 min readDec 22, 2021


Where the Mona Lisa should have hung, at the Salon Carré, Louvre Museum, after having been stolen in 1911. Image source Wikimedia Commons

On August 21st 1911, the Mona Lisa painting vanished from the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Three men disguised as museum staff quietly slipped away with the painting stowed beneath a blanket. They had hidden in the museum overnight. And with the stolen painting freed from its frame and glass, they hurried to the Quai d’Orsay station where they boarded a 7:47 am express out of the city.

The audacious theft of the Mona Lisa was only discovered when museum staff entered the Salon Carré, the room where the painting hung, and found a blank section of wall. All that remained were the four iron pegs that once fastened the object in place.

When the alarm went out, the police rushed to the museum. The doors were locked, staff and visitors were detained — but by then the painting had already left the city. After its disappearance, France’s borders were placed on high alert, with officials examining every vehicle that crossed the border.

The news went around the world, with the New York Times declaring, “60 Detectives Seek Stolen ‘Mona Lisa,’ French Public Indignant.”

When the museum reopened a week later, huge numbers of Parisians queued to witness the empty wall where the famous painting once hung. It was as if the blank space had a magnetism all of its own, with everyone wondering: how could this happen?

The Paris-Journal newspaper offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief caused police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso in Paris

In 1911, Pablo Picasso had been living in Paris for a decade. At the time, he was deep into his Cubist period, along with his fellow painter and friend Georges Braque.

Pablo Picasso pictured in 1912, stood before his Cubist painting ‘The Aficionado’. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Among Picasso’s other friends was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire.

Several years before, Picasso had paid 100 francs for two Iberian sculptures made around…