One night in 1911, a maintenance worker at the Louvre decided to go home with the Mona Lisa hidden under his smock. When it was discovered, all of Paris was positively scandalized by the theft of a painting which, until that night, no one really gave a merde about.
Up to that point, the relatively small Mona Lisa was just one of a handful of Leonardos hanging in the museum. But when the news broke, throngs of Parisians bum-rushed the Louvre to see the empty wall space where the Mona Lisa had hung.
Le police had no clues. They hauled in Pablo Picasso for questioning, but lucky for the cubists among us, he had an alibi.
Two years later, the thief, an Italian carpenter named Vincenzo Peruggia was caught trying to sell the painting in Florence. Newspapers went crazy with the story, the Mona Lisa was plastered, above the fold, across the world, and suddenly, she became famous.
Then in 1919, when Marcel Duchamp wanted to perform a symbolic defacing of a piece of high art, he drew a goatee across a postcard of her face and suddenly, she became sacred.
The fame she achieved as a result of this theft fed on itself and fed on itself, leading critics and academics to wax intellectual about all of her superior qualities, yielding unending conspiracy theories and ubiquitous pop culture references, until she was widely considered the greatest painting in the world.
But she is only celebrated because she is popular.
And she is only popular because she is popular.
And she only became popular because she was stolen.
And she was only stolen because she was small.