Donald Sassoon: Historian talks about how Mona Lisa became a pop icon

It's like a pilgrimage," says the historian Donald Sassoon, who spent two months looking at people looking at Mona Lisa and a year and a half writing a book about how she became the world's most famous painting.

A professor of Comparative European History at the University of London, Sassoon was born in Cairo and educated in Europe and the United States. He is in Paris to research a history of capitalism, has a book on Mussolini coming out in December and last year devoted 1,660 pages to "The Culture of the Europeans," a 10-year-long project tracing the development of cultural markets in Europe since 1800.

Sassoon planned to give the marketing of Mona Lisa one paragraph as, he says, an example of how an artefact of high culture can become pop. The paragraph became one page, two pages and eventually, in 2001, a short book on its own, "Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Cultural Icon."...

If, as André Malraux said, museums do not simply exhibit masterpieces but create them, Sassoon adds that they need to be written about, publicized, to reach iconic status and in mid-19th-century France, more than anywhere else, men and women of letters wrote extensively on the arts.

In Sassoon's words, Mona Lisa was repositioned, one might almost say re-branded, by the poet and respected art critic Théophile Gautier, who wrote about her as a disturbing smiling sphinx - "the sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners in a violet penumbra" - and transformed her into the voguish figure of decades to come: the femme fatale. "This canvas attracts me, revolts me, consumes me, and I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake," breathed the historian Jules Michelet....

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