Another art anniversary: Mona Lisa comes to New York! And she’s almost drowned in a sprinkler malfunction

Mona mania: New Yorkers line up outside the Met for the hottest ticket in town in 1963

While many artistic institutions will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show next month, New York lovers of more classical paintings will be celebrating another milestone — the 50th anniversary of the Mona Lisa‘s visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Leonardo da Vinci‘s stoic portrait came to America fifty years ago this month, a single-picture loan to the United States (as a special favor to Jackie Kennedy) and accompanied by André Malraux, the French Minister of Cultural Affairs. The first stop was the National Gallery in Washington DC, where over a half million people spent hours in line to gaze at the famous smile.

On February 7, 1963, she made her debut to the public at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the medieval sculpture hall, for a month-long exhibition that would become one of the museums most attended shows in history.  On that first day, thousands lined up outside in the freezing cold to catch a glimpse of the iconic painting; the first in line, a taxi driver named Joseph Lasky, got there at 4:30 in the morning.  By week’s end, already a quarter of a million people had visited the museum to see the Italian masterpiece.

Accommodating such a famous painting required some unprecedented changes in protocol. As a favor to the two governments, no admission fee was charged to view the painting, and weekday hours were extended until 9 pm each night.

Thousands of schoolchildren crammed the museum every morning, funneling by the modest-sized painting in a daze. Museum director James Rorimer told the New Yorker, “The dirt we expect, from them and everybody else! The accumulation of dust from scuffling shoes! We’ll have literally balls of dust.”

From reports, it sounds like they got the dust and air quality under control. The painting was secured by bulletproof glass and a couple Secret Service agents.  But the museum sprinkler system almost created an international incident by nearly destroying the painting in an unplanned shower.

According to a memoir by former museum director Thomas Hoving, he arrived at the museum storeroom one morning to find people frantically scurrying around with towels.

“No one ever discovered why, but some time during the night one of the fire sprinklers in the ceiling broke its glass ampoule….The Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre official, was ok.  He told me that the thick glass covering it had acted like an effective…raincoat.”

That incident was never leaked to the press. Actually, this would have been a good time to conceal something from the media as there was a newspaper strike at this time, shuttering many publications.

By the time the painting was packed up aboard the US United States for her journey back to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa had been seen by  well over one million people. According to the New York Times, the museum was able to identify the one-millionth visitor — one Arthur Pomerantz of New Rochelle — who was given a reproduction of the painting and gifts for his children.