When Jackie Kennedy Brought the Mona Lisa to America, Paris Rioted

Alex Wexelman
Nov 16, 2018 8:01PM

Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

A bidding war broke out at auction when Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) went on sale at Christie’s last year. With a final price tag of close to half a billion dollars, the painting now holds the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold.

One can imagine that if the Mona Lisa (1503–19) ever hit the block, it would demand a pretty penny. Yet the iconic portrait quite literally cannot have a dollar amount affixed to it. As legally stipulated by the French Heritage Code, the painting, on permanent display at the Musée du Louvre, is owned by the people. Simply put, it is against the law to sell the Mona Lisa.

The closest test of the world-famous painting’s worth occurred in 1962, when it was appraised in advance of a much-contested journey aboard the SS France to the United States. The Mona Lisa was valued at $100 million (more than $800 million today), setting the Guinness World Record for highest insurance valuation.

Despite public protests, André Malraux, the first French minister of cultural affairs, had consented to temporarily lend Leonardo’s masterpiece to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.,and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,because the request came from someone to whom he could not say no: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Photo by Robert Knudsen, White House Photographs. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.


Malraux met Jackie in 1961, during an official presidential visit to Paris. Her husband, U.S. president John F. Kennedy, had then only been in office for four months. His talks with French president Charles de Gaulle did not go well, but Jackie, fluent in French and social charms, left such a good impression that President Kennedy playfully commented that he was “the man who had accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” A year later, Jackie threw a star-studded dinner at the White House, with Malraux as the guest of honor. It was there that she persuaded the culture minister to loan the Mona Lisa to the U.S.

“Many art authorities were vehemently opposed to the idea of transporting one of the world’s great artistic treasures across the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter,” Margaret Leslie Davis, author of the recent book Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation, wrote to Artsy over email. “[National Gallery director] John Walker’s worst fear was that the Mona Lisa would come to harm, a sitting duck for criminals, terrorists, and thrill seekers.”

Since it came to France in the early 16th century, the Mona Lisa had been hidden during wartime and attacked, but had only left French soil once—when a thief, former Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, smuggled it to Italy in 1911.

Every great risk must have a payoff, and Jackie carefully engineered the display of France’s revered cultural icon to fulfill her goal of enriching the American public’s relationship to art, while also making a political statement. “She saw the exhibition as an unmatched opportunity to burnish the American image at home and abroad, and [as] a convincing emblem of friendship between France and the U.S.,” Davis explained. “It was a well-chosen gesture of amity, goodwill, and fervent diplomacy.”

Arts professionals around the world were irate. Opposition to the loan was so fierce that de Gaulle was forced to impose a media blackout due to riots in the streets of Paris. Walker called the move an example of American hubris, and was worried that if the Mona Lisa were damaged during its trip, it would cause an irreparable rift between America and the people of France. He later wrote in his memoirs that he had to have his doctor prescribe him “Moan Lisa” anxiety pills.

Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

To that end, no expense was spared on security for the journey. Packed in a temperature-controlled box (which was not allowed to fluctuate, the French stipulated, by more than one degree), and accompanied by armed guards, the painting arrived, unscathed, in New York City on December 19, 1962. It was greeted by local, state, and federal security officials and then placed inside an air-conditioned armored van, which drove straight to the National Gallery. Traffic was brought to a halt; the car zoomed past each red light on its route.

For nearly three weeks, the Mona Lisa was stored in a security vault while finishing touches were made for the exhibition’s scheduled opening on January 8, 1963. The unveiling coincided with the opening of the 88th Congress, and the private ceremony was packed with all of the big players in Washington, including every member of both Congress and the Senate, not to mention the president’s cabinet and all nine Supreme Court justices. The event was so raucous that when the PA system malfunctioned during his speech, President Kennedy tried to shout over the din. Following the opening, the New York Times ran the headline: “‘Mona Lisa’ Debut is a Noisy Affair.”

The party marked several significant firsts for Washington. “Never before had a work of art directly and expressly been lent to a president and his wife, never before had the organization of an exhibition ever been an official matter for the White House, never before and never again did a president of the United States personally inaugurate an art exhibition, much less give an inaugural speech for it,” scholar Frank Zöllner pointed out in his 1997 essay “John F. Kennedy and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: Art as the Continuation of Politics.”

“This painting,” President Kennedy said in his address, “is the second lady that the people of France have sent to the United States, and though she will not stay with us as long as the Statue of Liberty, our appreciation is equally great.” Kennedy was especially eager to use this opportunity to highlight a powerful allyship; the disastrous Cuban Missile Crisis had taken place fewer than three months prior to the unveiling. “Our two revolutions helped define the meaning of democracy and freedom, which are so much contested in the world today,” Kennedy said, a thinly veiled reference to the lingering threat of Communism. “Today, here in this gallery, in front of this great painting, we are renewing our commitment to those ideals which have proved such a strong link through so many hazards.”

Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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.”

Alex Wexelman