How renowned Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was mistakenly accused of stealing the Mona Lisa
Indeed, after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen (by an Italian petty criminal named Vincenzo Peruggia) from the Louvre in 1911, there were various speculations and accusations, and one of the individuals who briefly came under suspicion was the famous artist Pablo Picasso.
Below, World History Edu explores why and how the renowned Spanish painter was mistakenly connected with the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911:
Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet and a close friend of Pablo Picasso, was arrested and interrogated in connection with the theft, as he had once suggested that the Louvre should be “burnt down.” Prior to the theft, Apollinaire had employed a Belgian man named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret, who had stolen Iberian statues from the Louvre and sold them to Picasso.
When Apollinaire was arrested, he implicated Pablo Picasso, who was then also brought in for questioning. Both Picasso and Apollinaire were terrified at the prospect of being entangled in one of the most high-profile crimes of the century, but there was no substantial evidence linking them to the theft of the Mona Lisa.
Ultimately, both Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire were released without charge as there was no real evidence against them concerning the Mona Lisa theft, and the real thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught two years later when he attempted to sell the painting in Italy.
How Pablo Picasso and his friend Guillaume Apollinaire wanted to get rid of incriminating evidence
The incident where Pablo Picasso and his friend, Guillaume Apollinaire, wanted to dispose of incriminating evidence is connected to the aftermath of the Mona Lisa theft in 1911. Though neither of them was involved in the actual theft of the Mona Lisa, the heightened security and investigations led to a focus on art-related crimes and illicit art possession.
Apollinaire had employed Honoré Joseph Géry-Piéret, who had a penchant for theft and had stolen two Iberian heads from the Louvre, which eventually found their way to Picasso’s studio. These sculptures significantly influenced Picasso’s work, especially in the creation of his painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.
With the investigations into the Mona Lisa theft underway, Apollinaire feared that he and Picasso would be implicated due to their possession of the stolen Iberian heads, as both were foreigners in Paris and sensitive to public and official suspicion. The atmosphere in Paris was tense, and there was a risk of prison and expulsion for foreigners involved in criminal activities, especially related to art theft.
In anticipation of possible accusations and subsequent investigations, Apollinaire and Picasso decided to get rid of the Iberian heads. They packed the sculptures in a suitcase and intended to throw them into the Seine River from a Parisian bridge. However, either due to a sense of guilt, artistic conscience, or fear of surveillance, they abandoned their plan and returned with the sculptures.
Eventually, they opted for a legal resolution by returning the Iberian heads through an intermediary, similarly to how Géry-Piéret had operated. This decision was a pivotal point in mitigating the risks associated with the possession of stolen art.
How was the security situation of the Louvre like in the early 1910s?
In the early 20th century, security systems in museums were significantly less advanced compared to the contemporary high-tech surveillance and security measures. The lack of sophisticated security measures, like CCTV and advanced alarm systems, made it relatively easy for individuals to steal artworks and artifacts from museums, a stark contrast to the stringent security protocols of today’s museums.
In fact Peruggia was the first to hit the museum. A Belgian by the name Honoré Joseph Géry-Piéret exploited this vulnerability by discreetly stealing small, ancient artifacts from the museum’s displays and subsequently selling them. It’s worth mentioning the fact that Géry-Piéret was the secretary of Guillaume Apollinaire, an art critic and author who was a friend of Spanish painter Picasso.
Such acts of stealth and theft underscored the inefficiency of the security measures in place during that time. In today’s context, with advanced technologies and heightened security, committing such acts of theft would be substantially more challenging and likely near impossible due to immediate detection and response mechanisms in place.
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Questions and Answers about the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911
Who was Vincenzo Peruggia?
Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian petty criminal, moved to Paris in 1908 and worked as a handyman at the Louvre, installing protective glass on paintings. This job provided him intimate access to and knowledge of the world-renowned artworks and their security measures.
On August 21, 1911, Peruggia notoriously stole Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from his place of work, causing a media frenzy. The painting remained missing for two years before authorities apprehended Peruggia. During the investigation, Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were mistakenly arrested in connection with the theft.
How did Vincenzo Peruggia steal the Mona Lisa?
In his role as a handyman at the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia wore a white smock, the Louvre uniform, which granted him the chance to roam throughout the gallery after it was closed to the public. It was this unrestricted access that facilitated his theft of the Mona Lisa. With the ability to move freely and knowledge of the gallery’s layout and security, Peruggia was able to seize the opportunity to take the world-famous painting unnoticed.
Investigations later revealed that Vincenzo Peruggia orchestrated the theft of the Mona Lisa with assistance from two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti. They concealed themselves in a closet until the gallery closed. After dark, they removed the painting from its location, extracted it from its frame and glass case, and concealed it in a blanket. They then clandestinely transported it out of the gallery upon opening, and astonishingly, the painting’s absence went unnoticed until a visitor, expecting to view the artwork, discovered an empty space on the wall and alerted security.
What did Vincenzo Peruggia do after stealing the Mona Lisa?
Peruggia, along with his accomplices, brazenly transported the stolen Mona Lisa to his apartment in Paris. He initially intended to sell it to a wealthy collector, but widespread media coverage and a substantial police reward complicated his plans. Realizing selling the masterpiece would be challenging, he decided to conceal the painting in a trunk with a false bottom while contemplating his next move.
About two years after pulling of the heist, Peruggia attempted to sell the Mona Lisa to art dealer Alfred Geri in Florence, using a pseudonym. Suspicious, Geri involved an Italian gallery head, and they verified the painting’s authenticity. Pretending to agree to the sale, they contacted the Italian authorities.
In the end, the painting returned to the Louvre, and Peruggia was arrested. He maintained that he was driven by patriotic desires. Ironically, his criminal act significantly elevated the Mona Lisa’s global fame.
How did the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 make the painting famous?
The theft created a massive media sensation. Newspapers around the world covered the story extensively, giving the painting a level of publicity it had not enjoyed before. The Mona Lisa’s image was disseminated globally, making it familiar to a broader audience.
The audacious theft and the surrounding mystery ignited public curiosity and interest. People were intrigued by the unfolding drama and were eager to learn more about the painting and its background, enhancing its allure and mystique.
The theft underscored the painting’s cultural and national significance to France and the art world. The French public, angered and saddened by the loss, rallied around the artwork, reinforcing its status as a national treasure.
The international coverage of the theft and the subsequent return of the Mona Lisa raised its profile. The painting became symbolic of artistic excellence and cultural heritage, transcending national boundaries.
When the Mona Lisa was recovered and returned to the Louvre, the number of visitors wanting to see the now-famous painting surged. The painting’s allure has remained, and it continues to be a major draw for the Louvre, attracting millions of visitors annually.
The heightened fame and recognition resulted in the Mona Lisa becoming a cultural icon, influencing various forms of art, entertainment, and popular culture. The image of the Mona Lisa has been reproduced, referenced, and parodied countless times since the theft.
It must also be noted that the immense value attributed to the Mona Lisa due to the theft, and the efforts made to recover it, solidified its status as a masterpiece of Renaissance art. The painting came to symbolize artistic value and achievement, contributing to its lasting fame.