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Famous Paintings Reviewed

Famous Paintings: Mona Lisa

Posted by Susan Benford

Mona Lisa is both the most influential and mocked of all famous paintings in Western art history, even more than 500 years after her creation by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

leonardo mona lisa smileSo how could Mona Lisa be generating headlines again? Turns out that there may be an earlier version of Mona Lisa, painted when the fabled beauty was in her 20s. 

The Mona Lisa Foundation is dedicated to authenticating this earlier version of Mona Lisa, known also as the Isleworth Mona Lisa, as a Leonardo painting. The Foundation has marshalled historical evidence, scientific testing and hordes of art historians in its efforts, and claims no financial affiliation to the work.  

Here are some of the Foundation's and critics' arguments:

Age of the Earlier Version of Mona Lisa

While some critics contend Isleworth Mona Lisa is from the 17th century, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology used carbon 14 dating to peg a date of 1410 to 1455 for the canvas support (with a 95.4% probability). Within the timeframe of 1425 to 1450, the probability is 68.2%.

It's reasonable to conclude that this painting - whether or not by Leonardo da Vinci - predates the Louvre version of Mona Lisa, dated circa 1505. To my mind, this eliminates any conjecture that the Isleworth Mona Lisa is a copy of the Louvre version (and that's without considering all the immediate differences in the two works: sitting angle of Mona Lisa; size of the work; and age of Mona Lisa herself for starters).

leonardo mona lisas

Isleworth Mona Lisa, ca. 1505. Right.  Leonardo da Vinci.  Mona Lisa, ca. 1505.  Oil on panel, 30" by 21" Louvre, Paris.

Digitization of Brushstrokes

The Mona Lisa Foundation consulted Professor John Asmus, a master of the science of art diagnostics (you may recall him from his mid 1908s assertion that Mona Lisa was intitially
wearing a necklace that was later painted over by Leonardo.  The Louvre resisted... but confirmed Asmus' conclusion 15 years later). 

Asmus digitized the brushstrokes in both the Louvre and alleged older version of Mona Lisa, and concluded that they were executed by the same painter.  According to Asmus, the digitization techique is akin to DNA testing or fingerprint identification -- with a miniscule probability of error.

Eyewitness and Other Accounts

From Giorgio Vasari:

The architect, painter and writer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) published his landmark series of essays, "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects", in 1550.  Until earlier in the 20th century, Vasari was the leading source of information on Leonardo and Mona Lisa (and dozens of other famous paintings and artists).

Vasari recounts:

Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa his wife, and after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is today in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fontainebleau.

So here is the challenge of Vasari: art historians believe it's the Louvre Mona Lisa that was at Fontainebleau.  

Yet it's hard to dispute that Vasari did see an unfinished version of Mona Lisa: his detailed, passionate description is one of the most eloquent tributes ever written about a painting.   Vasari gushed,

Seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living leonardo mona lisa hands resized 600creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution.  The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. 

Vasari's comment that Mona Lisa was unfinished is hugely important; in 1506, Leonardo was summoned by the King of France to come to Milan, and he abandoned his activities in Florence. It is plausible that before his departure, Leonardo gave the unfinished commission to Franceso del Giocondo.

From Agostino Vespucci

Vespucci is the sole known eyewitness to Leonardo painting the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, as discovered in the 2005 Heidelburg document.  Vespucci reported in 1503:

Leonardo painted all the details of the face – subsequently the hands and other parts also; and typically left to his assistants other sections, such as the background, which even today remains unfinished, exactly as Vasari wrote over 460 years ago!

Again, a document of an unfinished version of Mona Lisa, clearly not the Louvre version.

Canvas versus Panel

Some critics suggest that the earlier version of Mona Lisa isn's by Leonardo because it is painted on canvas, and Leonardo preferred working on wood.

mona lisa smileFair objection. But Benois Madonna, another of Leonardo's famous paintings, is on canvas.  As the Mona Lisa Foundation notes, the turn of the 16th century was a transition time in materials, with both wood and canvas in use by the same painters. 

Other Issues

Testing has showed that some elements were painted with different pigments from the rest of the work, proving that the Isleworth Mona Lisa isn't solely by Leonardo.

Given this, how much of a painting has to be executed by Leonardo da Vinci for a meaningful attribution to him? If the conception of the work is by Leonardo, is that sufficient? 

Perhaps those questions are moot.

Other critics dismiss outright any attribution to Leonardo, with none other than the venerable Martin Kemp rejecting the xrays and infra-red reflectograms used as substantiation by the Foundation.  Kemp concludes:

The images of the Isleworth canvas have the dull monotony that would be expected of a copy.   

The Isleworth Mona Lisa is out of the vault for the first time in forty years as her owners, an international consortium, prepare for exhibitions starting this year in Asia.  The only certainty about the Isleworth Mona Lisa is that debate is far from over. 

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