I am convinced that fewer than six degrees of separation separate the Mona Lisa from any conceivable topic. However, I did not anticipate a link to the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, and Benjamin Franklin. I found one in the story of the so-called Vernon Mona Lisa, which long resided in Newport, Rhode Island.
According to this colorful account, the court of the ill-fated Louis XVI (1754-1793) boasted two versions of the Mona Lisa—the poplar panel and a canvas painting that hung in the chambers of Queen Marie Antoinette. Some time before her grim encounter with the guillotine in 1793, the queen reportedly entrusted the portrait to a young American named William Henry Vernon—perhaps for safe-keeping, perhaps as a gift for helping to save the life of her son, the Dauphin of France and heir to the throne.
Vernon was the son of a Rhode Island shipbuilder who had amassed a fortune trading in rum, slaves, and molasses. During the American Revolution, the senior Vernon, head of the continental navy board, befriended men such as George Washington, John Adams, and the French Marquis de Lafayette. After the war, he sent his son to Paris to acquire some Old World polish.
Young Vernon fell so deeply under Paris’s intoxicating spell that he became a pomaded regular at the court of King Louis XVI. When the American’s princely lifestyle plunged him into debt, the youth asked Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France at the time and another of his father’s influential friends, for a loan. Fearing for the young man’s future, Franklin wrote to his father, urging him to rescue his son from a misspent life.
“He will inevitably be lost, if he is suffered to remain longer at Paris,” Franklin warned, “I would recommend your making the voyage yourself to reclaim and bring him home with you.”
The prodigal son defied his father’s pleas to return home and ended up briefly imprisoned during the French Revolution. He later traveled to England and Russia before returning to Rhode Island in 1797 with chests of brocaded finery and a superb collection of paintings attributed to Michelangelo, Murillo, van Dyck, and other masters. He called his favorite The Nun, “a finished piece by Leonardo de Vincy [sic],” better known as Mona Lisa.
When he told his relatives that he had acquired the work from Marie Antoinette, they were more shocked than skeptical. Some spinster aunts considered the French queen so wicked that they allegedly burned letters she had written to their nephew. Vernon hung The Nun, his most cherished possession, in his bedroom. Family members reported seeing him kneeling before it with tears in his eyes.
After his death, his heirs auctioned off Vernon’s entire collection. A relative bought the painting, which passed from generation to generation as a family heirloom. Despite claims that the "Vernon Mona Lisa" was an authentic Leonardo, it never was accepted as such and remains in a bank vault in New Jersey to this day.
A reader recently wrote to say he lives near the Vernon House, located at 46 Clarke Street in Newport. This distinguished example of colonial-era architecture hosted many prominent visitors, including the commander of the French forces during the American Revolution and George Washington himself.
The home that also welcomed a purported Mona Lisa remained in the family’s possession until 1872. Vernon House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1968.
My thanks to Thomas Spero for leading me to Vernon House and for the photograph.
Dianne Hales is the author MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.