Suddenly, it seems to be raining Mona Lisas.
A website that went live yesterday argues that there are, in fact, two authentic Leonardo pictures of that famous smile: the familiar painting in the Louvre and another, earlier version of a distinctly younger-looking sitter, known as “The Isleworth Mona Lisa” (from the west London suburb where its then owner lived).
This was discovered, or so the story goes, by a British artist and collector named Hugh Blaker (1878-1936) in Somerset just before the World War I.
Later, it was owned by an art dealer, Henry F. Pulitzer, who placed it in a Swiss bank vault in 1975, where it has remained more or less ever since. It is now owned by an international group.
Two years ago the “Mona Lisa Foundation” was formed to research the picture, and its findings are presented on the website http://monalisa.org. The picture itself was been on show in Geneva.
So how does the evidence stack up? Central to the case is that there were two distinct Mona Lisas painted by Leonardo in the first place. The evidence for this is shaky.
The artist and historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) stated that the picture was unfinished -- which the Louvre painting obviously isn’t. But he never saw the painting, never met Leonardo, was writing decades later and frequently got his facts slightly scrambled.
A later 16th-century writer, Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538-92), refers to “the portrait of La Gioconda and of the Mona Lisa” as if there were two of them. The same objections apply. He never saw the original, which was in France.
Also, if there were two pictures, it would make no sense to title one with the sitter’s surname and the other with her first name. Both titles refer to the same Florentine woman, Lisa del Giocondo.
On the other hand, it’s not impossible that there were multiple versions of the picture. There are of several other Leonardo paintings, including the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,” from approximately the same date.
In 2006, an article in the scholarly magazine Apollo counted nine good copies of the Mona Lisa from the 16th and 17th centuries (not including the Isleworth version).
The Isleworth Lisa is quite distinct from the others. Not only is she younger-looking, but she has a different landscape behind her and two pillars on either side (as a few early works apparently derived from the Mona Lisa, including a drawing by Raphael, do too).
The pillars are perhaps a point in her favor, although the Prado picture has them too. So too is technical evidence that apparently shows some of the paint is pre-1750, and the canvas around 1500.
The fact that the picture is on canvas is a strike against it. (All authentic Leonardo paintings were originally on panel, though some were later transferred to canvas).
So what’s the verdict? Personally -- and judging, admittedly, from photographs -- I’m not convinced, and I doubt many Leonardo experts will be either. She just doesn’t look “right,” as they say in the art world.
Her hands look boneless, her face strangely flat and the landscape, even if unfinished, is nothing like any other Leonardo. If it weren’t for that scientific evidence of age, I might have suspected that Hugh Blaker had painted her himself at home in Isleworth.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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