The Vernon Mona Lisa

Influences on a Young Painter

I grew up in the history and mystery of the Vernon Mona Lisa. The picture shown, published in Life magazine in 1964, was one of two close encounters I had with the painting. At the time of the photo, I was more interested in the flavor of my lollipop then the story surrounding the masterpiece from the early 1500’s accredited to Leonardo da Vinci.

Over the years I came to understand that the value of a family heirloom is not so much in the object itself as in the stories associated with the it. The stories of the Vernon Mona Lisa are an opulent tapestry of love and betrayal, wealth and debt, Newport and Paris, tradition and rebellion, heroic, and horrific deeds.

The details of the Vernon Mona Lisa were found in letters between William Henry Sr. and his son William Henry Jr., the elder Vernon and his close friend Benjamin Franklin, boarding passes with an inventory of master paintings, certificates of authenticity, documented conversations between curators at the Louvre in Paris and the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard, and the findings of Thomas Macoughtry Judson, the head curator of Renaissance art at the Vatican. Much of this points to my initial statement of the “history” of the Vernon Mona Lisa but what was the “mystery” of the painting?

Two key factors of the mystery of the Vernon Mona Lisa were 1) how William Henry Jr., in a self-inflicted state of heavy debt accrued while hob-knobbing with the elite of Paris, possessed several master paintings, and 2) why the Vernon Mona Lisa had not been signed by its painter. For the first, we unfold the story of William Jr., and for the second, we accept that not all paintings, not even those of the masters, are signed.

I plan to tell the story of the Vernon Mona Lisa in four parts. Part One (April) = the introduction. Part Two (May) = Newport to Paris; High Life and Deep Debts, Part Three (June) = The Voyage Home; Secrets Left Untold, and Part Four (July) = Influence and Impact of Art History on a Current Painter (me).