The Mona Lisa Suicide

Occasionally I've run across references to a French artist who supposedly committed suicide because he was driven mad by the mystery of the Mona Lisa's smile. There aren't many details to the story. The Telegraph, in an article from 2003, summarizes the entire tale:

On June 23, 1852, a young French artist, Luc Maspero, threw himself from the fourth floor window of his Paris hotel. In a final letter, he wrote: "For years I have grappled desperately with [Mona Lisa's] smile. I prefer to die."

Many articles about the Mona Lisa casually include this tale without bothering to provide any references. For instance, it's mentioned in a 1999 Smithsonian article. Before that, the earliest reference I can find (searching in Google Books) occurs in an obscure 1966 work, Green Leaves: Harish S. Booch Memorial Volume. I came up empty-handed searching archives of nineteenth-century newspapers.

All versions of the tale, from 1966 onwards, are basically the same. No one ever supplies any information about who Luc Maspero was, or where the story of his unusual death originally came from. Tellingly, a 1961 article in the New York Times Magazine specifically about Mona Lisa's smile doesn't mention the Luc Maspero story. This suggests that the tale hadn't circulated very widely (at least in the English-speaking world) at that time.

Because the story of Luc Maspero sounds like an urban legend, and because I can't find any evidence to suggest that it's true, I'm going to list its status as "unlikely".

Death Art Urban Legends

Posted on Thu Nov 27, 2008


It it had been true, you would expect to find some reference to such a Luc Maspero in French webpages. However, as a quick search in Google shows, that's not the case. The only (Jean-)Luc Maspero recorded is a historian.
Posted by Enrique  on  Fri Nov 28, 2008  at  06:26 AM
I suppose it could be true, if the artist was trying to make a copy of the Mona Lisa (copying Old Master paintings was an important part of an art student's studies at that time, and many artists continued after they graduated). In that case, it would mean that he'd come to believe that he'd never succeed as an artist because he couldn't draw and paint skillfully enough. But the way the story is told is an attempt to give a sinister twist to the old Leonardo-the-wizard myth.
Posted by Mr Henderson  on  Fri Nov 28, 2008  at  03:54 PM
Yeah, if there was any truth to the story I strongly doubt that a guy would have been driven insane by the smile alone. It would have been a case of some other serious problem already being at work, and the smile simply being the final straw.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Fri Nov 28, 2008  at  08:27 PM
Or, granting that the event even happened and the suicide note is true, maybe that just seemed like a better thing to put as one's final, dramatic words than whatever the real problem was.
Posted by mattdm  on  Sat Feb 25, 2012  at  01:06 PM
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