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An Art Book - First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the 1963 Exhibition of Mona Lisa

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October 19, 2011

Program Locations:

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Margaret Liebman Berger Forum

FREE - Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

In December 1962, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa set sail from Paris to New York for what many knew would be the riskiest art exhibition ever mounted. Sent as a personal loan to President and Mrs. Kennedy by the French government, the famous painting was exhibited in Washington and New York for fifty-two days, igniting “Lisa Fever” as nearly two million Americans stood in long lines for a chance to see the masterpiece. The driving force behind the painting’s high-profile visit was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who through the successful exhibition of Mona Lisa, pioneered the phenomenon of the blockbuster museum show. A discussion between biographer Margaret Leslie Davis and NYPL Director of Collections Strategy Victoria Steele sheds light on Jacqueline Kennedy’s surprising and extensive role in the exhibition of France’s revered treasure with rare archival photographs and historic film footage.

The fragile painting, sealed in a temperature-controlled, bulletproof box, traveled like a head of state accompanied by armed guards and constant surveillance. The driving force behind the famous painting’s high profile visit was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who convinced French Cultural Minister André Malraux and National Gallery Director John Walker to share the masterpiece with the American people. She overcame the fierce objections of art officials who feared the journey would ruin the world’s most celebrated smile. It was the greatest outpouring of appreciation for a single work of art in American history. And as only Jacqueline Kennedy could do, she infused America’s first museum blockbuster show with a unique sense of pageantry that ignited a national love affair with the arts. Mona Lisa’s journey is a uniquely American saga of art, diplomacy and culture, and the book Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation is a delicious slice of history told with novelistic flair. Gathering rare archival documents biographer Margaret Leslie Davis has written a fascinating true story about art and international diplomacy and the irresistible charm of Camelot and its queen. 

A line stretches down Fifth Avenue as visitors wait for admittance to the exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.A line stretches down Fifth Avenue as visitors wait for admittance to the exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.School children encounter the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery in January, 1963.School children encounter the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery in January, 1963.

Margaret Leslie Davis is a prolific and award winning author of books about the history of the West, a region she calls the “Pastel Empire.” She is the author of three acclaimed biographies of important American empire builders Golden Spur Award-winner Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (HarperCollins), Los Angeles Times bestseller Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward Doheny (University of California Press), The Culture Broker: Franklin Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles and her newest book, Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation (Da Capo). The book has been showcased on ABC’s Good Morning America, excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine and featured in the Sunday London Times. Columnist Liz Smith called the book “an engaging and dynamite story” and an "important addition to American museum and art history."

Victoria Steele is the Brooke Russell Astor Director of Collections Strategy for The New York Public Library. In this capacity, she oversees all of NYPL collections, including circulating collections in 89 locations and research collections that encompass fourteen special collections and archives. Previously, she headed the UCLA Library’s Department of Special Collections, where she also served as founding director of its Center for Primary Research and Training. A former Fulbright Fellow to the United Kingdom, she holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Southern California; an M.A. in Communications Management from the Annenberg School at USC; an M.L.S. from UCLA; and a B.A. in art history from UCLA.

In its third season the program series An Art Book, initiated and organized by Arezoo Moseni, is a celebration of the essential importance and beauty of art books. The events showcase book presentations and discussions by world renowned artists, critics, curators, historians and writers.

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