If you flipped through The Washington Post on Jan. 16, 1963, you would have come to a display ad on Page B2. “Your home and health are as priceless as the Mona Lisa,” read the ad’s headline. “Both need protection from the ravages of wintertime dryness.”
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was being used to sell humidifiers.
The Mona Lisa was all the rage that winter in Washington for a simple reason: She was in Washington, the result of an artistic and diplomatic coup by first lady Jackie Kennedy with an assist from a Washington Post reporter.
The episode is the subject of a 2008 book that has just been republished by the White House Historical Association: “Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy & da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed & Captivated a Nation.”
Said Margaret Leslie Davis, the Los Angeles-based author: “It’s really a valentine to the arts, diplomacy and politics.”
The notion that the old painting should reach a new audience in the New World was first raised during a 1962 visit to Washington by France’s minister of culture, Andre Malraux. Jackie Kennedy was an art lover and a Francophile. During a tour of the National Gallery of Art, she mentioned to Malraux that it would be wonderful if Americans could see the Mona Lisa.
Later that same day, The Post’s Edward Folliard asked Malraux during a news conference whether the painting could visit. Folliard had covered the opening of the National Gallery in 1941 and had long dreamed of seeing the world’s most famous painting hanging there.
It was the sort of thing Malraux — and his boss, French President Charles de Gaulle — could make happen, though there was opposition on both sides of the Atlantic. Many in France feared for the painting’s safety.
The Mona Lisa — known as La Joconde in France — was a French cultural icon, and one that many experts were adamant should never travel. Leonardo had painted it in 1503 on a poplar board that was prone to warping when the temperature and humidity changed, threatening to slough off the pigment.
Even the director of the National Gallery, John Walker, was against it. He knew the Kennedys would hold him responsible for the painting’s safety while on U.S. soil. He didn’t need the headache.
In the end, Walker got his headache — and America got the Mona Lisa, on display from Jan. 9 to Feb. 3, 1963, at the National Gallery and then for a month at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The French wouldn’t let the painting travel by plane so it sailed across the ocean aboard the SS France in a custom protective case designed to float.
“The flag of France was painted on the outside so that in the event the ship caught fire, they could toss the crate overboard and scoop it up,” said Davis.
Folliard traveled on the ship, too, though because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the painting, the stories he filed were mainly imaginary conversations with Mona.
The first visitor to see her at the National Gallery was Ruth Amanuel of Langley Park, Md., who had stood in line since 7:30, practically turning blue in the cold. She pronounced it worth the wait: “Oh, her smile! Everything they said about her was true.”
In the end, nearly 2 million people saw the Mona Lisa during its brief time in the United States.
It was not without its moments of grim comedy. When the art expert sent from the Louvre to monitor the painting — Madeleine Hours — noticed that the sweaty, respirating crowds around the Mona Lisa seemed to be raising the temperature dangerously, she lunged behind the ropes that surrounded it to check a device tracking conditions.
One of the rifle-clutching Marines guarding the painting punched Hours in the throat, knocking her out. (She was fine. So was the Mona Lisa.)
The loan brought to the National Gallery visitors who might not otherwise have come, drawn by the hype. It was a reminder that culture was for everyone.
“Both the president and Mrs. Kennedy distinctly saw the arts not as a diversion or an amusement in life,” Davis said. “They saw the arts as a critical component of a nation’s higher purpose.”
(And now? “We’re really entering unknown territory,” Davis said. “A year into the Trump administration we’re really seeing no enhancement and strengthening of the arts.”)
Some visitors in 1963 couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Others were moved to tears by Leonardo’s sublime painting. When one boy drew even with the Mona Lisa, he opened his jacket so the puppy he’d been secretly holding against his chest could see it, too.
The dog’s reaction went unrecorded.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.