Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Biblio File

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction


Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci., Digital ID 459329, New York Public LibraryOne hundred years ago this month people lined up at the Louvre to see an empty space on a wall.

On August 21, 1911 a guard at the Louvre noticed a painting was missing. He initially thought nothing of it, assuming it was behind the scenes being photographed. It soon though became apparent what had really happened.

Someone had stolen the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci., Digital ID 459537, New York Public LibraryThe museum was closed for a week to investigate and when it reopened thousands lined up to look at where the famous painting had once hung.

Louvre employee (and patriotic Italian) Vincenzo Peruggia stole the painting, believing it should be returned to Italy. He kept the painting in his apartment for two years before being caught. The Mona Lisa was exhibited throughout her home country and returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was regarded as a hero in Italy and served only 6 months for the theft.

I'm not sure which to me is more striking: an individual having such an iconic work in his home all to himself for two full years, or crowds of people lining up to look at what was not there.

What would it cost to borrow the Mona Lisa for two years? Six months of your life?

In "A Big Fat Bonus, but Not Carte Blanche" from the December 31, 2006 New York Times, William L. Hamilton asked the question "What could you do with $10 million?" A previous New York Public Library Director said you could check out the Library's copy of the Gutenberg Bible to read in bed. The Director and his security staff would have to accompany the bible at all times to ensure its safety, and they'd have to be paid for their services.

Though the information is the same there is a difference between the Gutenberg Bible and the bible found in a hotel room drawer.

The object and the message.

The thing and the representation of the thing.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

Many indigenous people were afraid to have their photograph taken, fearing the act of magically capturing their image would cause them to lose their soul.

What is it about a photograph that can capture what cannot be seen?

Does representation ever become the reality?

The majority of the people in the world know the Mona Lisa through photographs. In person at the Louvre one's expectations are not likely met as one is more likely to see through the crowds of tourists their own reflection in the bullet proof glass.

It brings to mind "The Most Photographed Barn in America" passage from Don DeLillo's White Noise:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"

People standing in line, looking at an empty space on the wall. People looking at other people look at the empty space on the wall. Everyone knowing what should be there. Everyone knowing exactly what the thing would look like.

The French painter Paul Delaroche allegedly said "From today, painting is dead" when he first experienced Louis Daguerre's photographic process in 1839. Photography had as much of an effect on reproducing images as movable type had on reproducing text. Though painting was never really in mortal danger, the message was clear.

Within a few decades the ease of mechanically capturing an accurate representation of someone or something became available and affordable to the masses.

A century later the mechanical process became digital.

People with cameras left the elevated site to change their film and process their negatives, replaced by others who instantly shared their photos of the barn with the world on Flickr.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.
This is Joseph Kosuth's chair.
This is a photograph of Joseph Kosuth's chair.
Joseph Kosuth's chair (noun) is a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, leags, back, and often arms, designed to accommodate one person.

Reality and representation.

The indigenous people's souls were taken.

Once you've seen the thing, you'll never look at the representations the same way again.

Everyone knows what the barn looks like from the countless calendars, posters, greeting cards, and books.

An empty wall. A new reality.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

Recommended reading:



Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Gardner Heist

Reminds of the stolen paintings at the Gardner museum in Boston. In 1990, thieves walked off with $600 million dollars worth of paintings and the theft has never been solved. However, due to Isabella Stewart Gardner's will none of the paintings can be replaced if they go missing so the empty frames continue to hang on the wall. Read "The Gardner Heist" by Ulrich Boser, great story of the heist and the 20 year search since.`

Thanks for the recommendation!

Empty frames.... perfect!

Vanished Smile - 100th Anniversary

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti is a wonderful recounting of this notorious heist which happened 100 years ago today. It's a great story, written with ease and style.


Yes, there are many interesting details surrounding the disappearance. One of my favorite facts: Picasso was one of the original suspects in the theft.

Post new comment