The story behind theft of the Mona Lisa
Picasso and poet Appollinaire were prime suspects when Leonardo da Vinci’s best known painting was stolen from the Louvre
On a mundane morning in late summer in Paris, the impossible happened. The Mona Lisa vanished. On Sunday evening, August 20, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s best-known painting was hanging in her usual place on the wall of the Salon Carré, between Correggio’s Mystical Marriage and Titian’s Allegory of Alfonso d’Avalos. On Tuesday morning, when the Louvre reopened to the public, she was gone.
In the seven years from 1905 to 1911, the genesis story of modern art was being written. Pablo Picasso was its genius; Guillaume Apollinaire was its impresario. A flamboyant poet and cultural provocateur, Apollinaire enunciated the modernist creed, adopting the Marquis de Sade’s maxim, “In art, one has to kill one’s father”. Urging the destruction of all museums “because they paralyse the imagination”, he championed Picasso “as a young god who wants to remake the world”.
Apollinaire and the artist were leaders of a group loosely known as la bande de Picasso. Familiar from Montmartre to Manhattan as the “Wild Men of Paris”, Picasso’s gang of painters and poets were the outlaws of traditional art. Young, brilliant and ruthlessly ambitious, they strutted through the cobblestone streets of Montmartre and filled the cheap cafes, defining themselves as well as a new creative idiom, breaking the rules to free art from art history.
After two frustrating weeks [following the Mona Lisa’s theft, police prefect Louis] Lépine believed he had cracked the case. In la bande de Picasso, he had found the international ring of art thieves he had been hunting.