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When the Mona Lisa Met the Big U

The SS United States has carried her fair share of famous passengers over the years, but few enjoyed the illustrious reputation of the ship's oldest ever traveler: a 460-year-old woman from Italy with a mischievous smile.

That woman, as fate would have it, was none other than Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa (c. 1503), Leonardo da Vinci.

The story of how da Vinci's fabled masterpiece got to the U.S. in the first place — let alone how it wound up on board America's Flagship — is an interesting one. It all started in early 1962, when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis (then better known as simply "Jackie Kennedy") first proposed the idea to French novelist André Malraux, who was then serving as France's Minister of Cultural Affairs.

Though some French citizens scoffed at the idea, it quickly gained traction, thanks to Malraux's pledged support. Not long after, plans were in motion for the Mona Lisa to make its first trip across the Atlantic. Interestingly, apart from a brief period during World War II when the painting was hidden from the Nazis, this would also mark its first time leaving the Louvre since it was stolen by the museum's former employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, in 1911.

President John F. Kennedy (then-Senator) and Jackie Kennedy on board the SS United​ States in 1955. Photograph courtesy of Corbis Images.

Despite the objections of some, the plans to take Mona Lisa to the States did, indeed, pan out. The painting departed Le Havre on December 14, 1962, carried by the prestigious SS France. After being carefully received in New York, the mysterious, smiling woman was moved to Washington D.C., drawing huge crowds at the National Gallery of Art from January 9 - February 3, 1963. After, it was off to New York City, where scores of Americans flocked to the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch a glimpse of her during a month-long exhibition.

Seeing as she came to America on a French ship, it only made sense that our nation's greatest ocean liner would be the chosen vessel to return Mona Lisa home. On March 7, 1963, she boarded the SS United States, where da Vinci's masterpiece was given quite the treatment — she stayed in a temperature-controlled room and enjoyed the protection of armed guards around the clock.

Of course, it wouldn't be a long voyage. America's Flagship got Mona Lisa back to France in no time at all, with her nestled back home at the Louvre on March 12, 1963.


The SS United States remains a soaring example of our ability to join arm-in-arm to advance common goals. It took many hands to build her, and it will take all of us, working together, to ensure a bright future for her. Make your donation today, or find additional ideas HERE for how you can support our crucial mission to save America's Flagship.

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