America got the Mona Lisa, on display from Jan. 9 to Feb. 3, 1963, at the National Gallery and then for a month at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The notion that the old painting should reach a new audience in the New World was first raised during a 1962 visit to Washington by France’s minister of culture, Andre Malraux. Jackie Kennedy was an art lover and a Francophile. During a tour of the National Gallery of Art, she mentioned to Malraux that it would be wonderful if Americans could see the Mona Lisa.
The French wouldn’t let the painting travel by plane so it sailed across the ocean aboard the SS France in a custom protective case designed to float.
“The flag of France was painted on the outside so that in the event the ship caught fire, they could toss the crate overboard and scoop it up,” said Davis.
It was not without its moments of grim comedy. When the art expert sent from the Louvre to monitor the painting — Madeleine Hours — noticed that the sweaty, respirating crowds around the Mona Lisa seemed to be raising the temperature dangerously, she lunged behind the ropes that surrounded it to check a meter.
One of the rifle-clutching Marines guarding the painting punched Hours in the throat, knocking her out. (She was fine. So was the Mona Lisa.)
Some visitors in 1963 couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Others were moved to tears by Leonardo’s sublime painting. When one boy drew even with the Mona Lisa, he opened his jacket so the puppy he’d been secretly holding against his chest could see it, too.
The dog’s reaction went unrecorded.