Friday, 28 September 2012

Leonardo da Vinci. The Isleworth Mona Lisa


In an extraordinary bout of promotion, the Mona Lisa Foundation has captured incredibly wide media attention through the announcement on Thursday that they are in possession of the “earlier version” of the Mona Lisa – the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco de Giocondo. The announcement, ostensibly comes from a non-profit research foundation, but the directors of the Foundation are to be identified as belonging to the syndicate of owners.

David Feldman, the major stamp dealer who is a director of the Foundation, kindly arranged for me to be sent a high resolution image and a copy of the glossy, gilt-edged book, which contains their “proof” that they own the first version of Leonardo’s portrait. I have not seen the painting in the original, but some things are so clear from the image and from their mish-mash of suppositions in the book that seeing the original is most unlikely to change my present conclusions.

The book, apparently written for the most part by Feldman’s brother, Stanley, is as physically impressive as it is historically slippery. There is no sense of how to distinguish core evidence, evaluate sources and construct arguments methodically. The piles of unstable hypotheses, stacked one on another, would not be acceptable from an undergraduate.

They (he?) says there must be a first Mona Lisa – the evidence shows this. Let’s cut back to basics. We now know, courtesy of the annotation by Agostino Vespucci in his edition of Cicero’s Letters to Friends, that the painting was underway in 1503. Vespucci, who knew Leonardo, mentions her “head” and that the painting was incomplete.
The next possible mention is the travel diaries of Antonio de Beatis, who visited Leonardo's French residence in the service of the Cardinal of Aragon. Antonio noted three pictures, one of which was of “a certain Florentine woman portrayed from life at the instance [instanza] of the late Magnificent Giuilano de’ Medici”. This might be the Mona Lisa , though Antonio’s precision as a source is questionable. He says that Leonardo suffered paralysis in his right hand and that we “cannot expect more good things from him”. Leonardo was left-handed. If the portrait is the Mona Lisa, it is possible that Giuliano, whom Leonardo served in Rome 1513-16, expressed interested in obtaining the portrait.  

In any event, the next really solid reference is in the 1525 list of the possessions of the cunning Salaì, who had obtained some key Leonardos that were in the master’s possession at his death. “La Gioconda” (i.e. the wife of Francesco de Giocondo) is recorded in the list designed to facilitate the division of the late Salaì’s possessions between his two sisters.  The best of Salaì’s Leonardos, including the Leda and the St Anne, entered the French Royal Collection at an unknown date, presumably during the lifetime of Francis I, Leonardo’s patron.

Where is the evidence for an earlier version of the younger Lisa? The most straightforward explanation consistent with the evidence is that there was one autograph portrait, never handed over the commissioner but retained (like other paintings) by Leonardo himself. We know that he was notably slow painter, and the physical evidence in the Louvre painting – different modes of handling and crack patterns – favours an extended period of execution. The painting may not even be quite finished now.

The book claims that none of the evidence of scientific examination indicates that the Isleworth picture is not by Leonardo. Nor does it show that it is not by Raphael. Even this ineffectual claim, with its double negative, is not justified. The infrared reflectogram and X-ray published on p. 253 do not reveal any of the characteristics of Leonardo’s preparatory methods. Leonardo, as the infrared images of the Louvre painting show, was an inveterate fiddler with his compositions even once he had begin to work on the primed surfaces of his panels. The images of the Isleworth canvas have the dull monotony that would be expected of a copy.

The carbon dating of the canvas on p. 246 produces a date band (broad as ever for carbon dating) that effectively ends in the early 15th century! Either the technique had gone awry or the linen was in existence at least 100 years before  the painter used it.

I see lots of dossiers of “scientific evidence” attached to purported Leonardos. It often seems enough to have the texts with the data, diagrams and images to “prove” the authenticity, whether or not the they actually tell us anything that actively supports Leonardo’s authorship.

When we come to look really carefully at the “Isleworth Mona Lisa”  it is evident that the copyist has failed to understand significant details and the suggestive subtlety of Leonardo’s image.  I could give a big list, but here are a few:
1) Lisa’s dress, as revealed by the gathered neckline in the Louvre painting, consists of a miraculously thin, translucent overlayer with thicker opaque cloth underneath. The copyist does not understand this structure and renders it lamely;
2) the spiralling veil over her left shoulder, rendered by Leonardo with depth and diaphanous vivacity, is transformed into a series of dull stripes of inert highlight;
3) Lisa’s  hair has that characteristic rivulet pattern in the Louvre painting, but is rendered in a routine manner in the Isleworth picture;
4) the veil beside Lisa’s right eye floats over the sky, rocks, water and her hair with extraordinary delicacy, with its meandering edge marked with a minutely thin, dark border – but not in the Isleworth version;
5) the folds of draperies in the latter are hard, routine and show little sense of the folding processes that are apparent in the Louvre painting;
6) the mid-ground hills / mountains in the Isleworth picture are painted in a thick, heavy-handed and opaque manner, with none of the optical elusiveness of Leonardo, and none of his living sense of the “body of the earth”;
7) the island on the left of the painting is truly bad – a literal blot on the landscape. There is no logic to the reflection and no other sign of the water that is responsible for the reflection;
8) the head in the Isleworth picture has been conventionally prettified in stock direction of the standard Renaissance image of the “beloved lady”. The idea, in the book, that Renaissance portraits of mature women can be used as accurate registers of the their actual age is misguided.

Everything points to the Isleworth painting being a copy. There is a comparable copy – island and all – in the National Museum in Oslo. Another is illustrated on p.199. There are families of copies of the Mona Lisa. This family of three is not the best.

And, on this flimsy but noisy basis, the Mona Lisa Foundation has the world-wide media jumping to attention. Any Leonardo story is mega-news. It is this phenomenon that is really notable in the current episode of Leo-mania. Leonardo would have been pleased. He was certainly looking for enduring fame.


  1. Dear Professor Kemp. Many thanks for this rational outline. I particularly enjoyed the eighth point - using a stylised portrait for any historical extrapolation can only be done if there are other sources to verify the artist had gone to pains to depict the sitter accurately.

    Immediately, the example of Isabelle d'Este comes to mind - whom Pietro Aretino mocked as disonestamente brutta in her older age - boldly instructing Titian to paint her in her youth. Her actual age and appearance may or may not have been suggested by the portrait which now survives in the form of a Rubens copy.

    Leonardo's portrait was highly popular and influential in its day, that it generated drawings (even by Raphael for example), and inspired other copies is not surprising, a phenomenon still present in the world of art and fashion to this day.

    How self-serving owners can distort this into "research" is always perplexing.

    Many kind regards

  2. 6) the mid-ground hills / mountains in the Isleworth picture are painted in a thick, heavy-handed and opaque manner, with none of the optical elusiveness of Leonardo, and none of his living sense of the “body of the earth”;
    7) the island on the left of the painting is truly bad – a literal blot on the landscape. There is no logic to the reflection and no other sign of the water that is responsible for the reflection;

    These are the qualities that stood out to me. I have heard that Leonardo's interpretation of the landscape came from his exposure to some Chinese silk paintings that were brought to the Vatican. The landscape, seen in that light, makes the other landscape look truly clumsy and clearly not conceived in the same way.

  3. Good to read your clear remarks.
    May I suggest something that puzzles me:
    If the Mona Lisa of Paris originally had eyebrows, as suggested by Lumiere Technology, then it is dubious that this Isleworth version has the same identical absence of eyebrows. If both versions had eyebrows in around 1510 then would the process of disapearrance have been identical in different atmospheres and conditions of storing?? It is hard to believe. Besides your remarks, I suspect very much that this Mona Lisa is a copy of the original of Paris and was executed when the Mona Lisa of Paris had lost his eyebrows... Also, it is a bit difficult to believe that the incredibly precise Leonardo would have failed to reproduce identically the shape of the face between the early version and the version of Paris. The faces are too different.

  4. This is just to add that the instructive Prado copy, proved to have been painted in parallel with Da Vinci (same pentimenti etc...), has kept her eyebrows...

  5. Thanks all for comments. I don't know about the Chinese paintings in the Vatican - but definitely worth thinking about.
    The issue of the eyebrows and the copies warrants a serious study, but most of the copies are not available in high res images. The Prado version, which may originate close to Leonardo, even in his studio, does indeed have pencil-thin eyebrows. What is needed is a systematic study of "families" of copies (like a family tree) of the kind that Thereza Wells undertook for our book on the "Madonna of the Yarnwinder". It may be that the presence / absence of eyebrows would be one of the main criteria. It would be a big project and involve some less than thrilling paintings. Any volunteers?

  6. Very interesting Dr. Kemp. I was just wondering about the two columns/pilars that are seen in Raphael's copy/sketch (circa. 1504 I think). Why aren't those columns present in the Louvre Mona Lisa? or is it possible that Raphael just added those columns out of his own imagination? Thanks in advance!

  7. Many thanks. The Louvre painting has not been cut down at the sides and the shafts of columns were always very slight slivers. Almost all the copyists were uncomfortable with this and made the columns wider.

    1. Thanks for the prompt reply Dr. Kemp. So, is it your view that there never were two versions of the Mona Lisa or do you feel that there may have been two versions? also, what do you make of Pascal Cotte's suggestion that there is an earlier version of the Mona Lisa underneath the Louvre version? Thank you! (May I also add that I watched a documentary about 'La Bella Principessa' and was very impressed by the work you did to attribute it to Leonardo)