During its stay at the National Gallery, the Mona Lisa was seen by 518,525 people, many of whom waited in line for up to two hours just to catch a short glimpse before being told to move along. “I liked it better when it was in Paris,” one disgruntled visitor remarked.
The tight security around the painting also made for an intense viewing experience: Two rifle-bearing Marines were stationed on either side. When Madeleine Hours, the art expert sent from the Louvre to monitor the painting, realized the room’s temperature was rising due to the heavily-breathing, sweaty mass of bodies, she lunged toward the masterpiece to check the device tracking conditions. Fearing an attack, one of the guards delivered an incapacitating punch to her throat. (Hours and the Mona Lisa were both fine.)
The painting subsequently traveled to the Metropolitan Museum for a near-month-long residency. On February 6th, Mayor Robert Wagner unveiled the portrait, calling the Mona Lisa “one of the most beautiful tourists we are ever likely to have.” The following day, the exhibition opened to the public, almost instantly setting new attendance records—the Met welcomed 1,077,521 visitors to see the painting—even though temperatures outside were freezing.
On one particularly cold day, a large group of young girls from New Jersey waited in line for more than three hours before finally arriving inside the Met. The warmth of the building so shocked them that many passed out. After coming to, the girls got back in line and saw the Mona Lisa.
Jackie’s gambit had paid off. “The record crowds,” Davis told Artsy, “proved that Jacqueline Kennedy, through her adept staging, pioneered the modern phenomenon of the blockbuster museum exhibition.” Mona Lisa’s visit has left a lasting legacy; the widely seen shows ushered in a new appreciation for the arts among the American public. For many, the painting helped to demystify the museum experience, prompting a cultural reevaluation of who benefits from the fine arts. Because of Jackie Kennedy and Mona Lisa’s diplomacy, art, Davis said, was “no longer the privileged domain of a few educated connoisseurs, but rather central in the life of all Americans.”