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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Latest work attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: Salvator mundi

London’s National Gallery has launched the largest exhibition ever of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. Included is what is said to be a newly-discovered and authenticated work by Leonardo: “Salvator mundi”—Jesus as Redeemer of the World, to which he gives blessing.

 “A Long Lost Leonardo” 

Under that heading Milton Esterow, of the New York journal Art News, confirmed in August 2011 that Robert Simon, member of a consortium of dealers said to own a newly-rediscovered painting by Leonardo da Vinci, had “confirmed its discovery and authentication,” announcing its impending inclusion in a major exhibition of Leonardo’s works in London’s National Gallery. 

         “Authentication”—by whom, of what qualifications? and on what  attestable evidence?

Its discovery after having been “lost for centuries” had been announced in the same journal two months earlier. Simon had declined to give details, but in July a public relations company issued a statement in his name, declaring that “study and examination of the painting by a number of scholars ‘resulted in an unequivocal consensus that the Salvator mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and versions depend.’”  “a number of scholars”—what number, and of what kind? “unequivocal consensus” means only that no-one disagreed. See further, under CONCLUSIONS, below.

The sole difference of opinion appeared to concern when it was painted: “Most,” someone seems to have declared, date it “in the late 1490s,” while Others believe it “slightly later... contemporary with the Mona Lisa.  Most...” —  “Others believe...”  Who are these  anonymous believers?

 “One scholar said, ” apparently to Milton Esterow, that the owners declined an offer of $100 million, telling him “I was told they’re asking $200 million for it;” which Robert Simon is reported to have denied, in these words: “As representative of the owners I can say that the picture is not on the market.”  “One scholar said...” —  “...$100 million” — “I was told.... $200 million for it” — Simon: “I can say that the picture is not on the market.”  — Could the consortium be waiting for a better offer?

He is claimed to have taken the painting to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art two years previously; and “a person close to the Metropolitan ‘who asked not to be identified, is reported as having given (perhaps to Milton Esterow: though it’s unclear), an account of what the painting’s appearance is said to have been when it turned up at auction, yet that “Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble;” and that now it has been cleaned “All agree it was painted by Leonardo.”   “a person close... who asked not to be identified,” and  “All agree...” All of whom?  And why is there no explicit report of proceedings and outcomes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

 “It’s up there with any artistic discovery of the last 100 years,” said one scholar.  Another of those anonymous scholars!

Esterow’s account further reports that the painting was shown in 2010 “to curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Frederick Ilchman, the museum’s curator of paintings, declined to comment.”  Seeing that he declined, why mention him at all, and by name?—unless he had insisted on not being implicated, even by inference or default.

Also, that some time about the first half of 2009, the painting was taken to London’s National Gallery, where “four Leonardo scholars” had been invited, being told “We have something interesting to show you.” They are identified by name as a curator of drawings and paintings at the Metropolitan Museum; a conservator “who directed the restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in Milan; “an author of many books on the Renaissance;” and a notable “professor emeritus of art history...”  Surely the curator must have known of the painting already, being on the Metropolitan Museum’s staff.  “restoration?” That’s a relic. Today’s emphasis is on conservation; letting someone loose to overpaint a damaged work is a thing of the past. Surely!

 “There was a lot of excitement,” said a scholar who was briefed on the session. “Some were somewhat reticent, but there was general acceptance. Christ’s garment is painted in blue with a miraculous softness.”  “A scholar who was briefed...” Why nothing from the actual participants—but only hearsay?  The wording “...somewhat reticent ...general acceptance.” doesn’t seem enthusiastic and unequivocal.

...and apparently added “The ‘Salvator mundi’ theme was popularized by Netherlandish artists such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer and taken up in Italy during the Renaissance.”  Since when was the German Albrecht Dürer Netherlandish?  “such as Jan van Eyck” might be apt, since he himself painted no such work. But which Netherlandish artists did? As for popularising, though Dürer painted his  sole example in 1500, he seems to have done further work on it nearly twenty years later, which suggests he had not been doing any popularizing of it. The subject did not proliferate in Italy, apart from this present type, and a related variant. For more, see  CONCLUSIONS, below.

Esterow’s informants (who, as reported, seem not to include the named “four Leonardo scholars,”) were apparently communicative, for he is able to recount the painting’s ownership  “according to one source,” by Britain’s Kings Charles I and II; re-appearing in the collection of Sir Francis Cook (1817–1901), exhibited in the 1940s, and sold at Sotheby’s in 1958 for £45.   Perhaps it was owned by Charles I (though seemingly not as a work by Leonardo), yet his collection was sold off by the Puritan government, not inherited by Charles II.  It or one or more replicas have later been ascribed to Leonardo, and the attribution universally rejected. Refer to CONCLUSIONS, below.

Syndicated newspaper reports supply some further bits of information, at times seriously at variance with the above; though some are new—

It is reported that x-rays show the position of the right-hand’s thumb to have been altered, and since the painting’s numerous other versions show that thumb in the same position, this is taken to prove that this is the unique original.  The thumb’s position sends mixed gestural signals. If Jesus is giving a blessing in the name of the Trinity the thumb should be close to the first two fingers. That is thwarted by their ungainly juxtaposition. I can’t imagine Leonardo, a superb delineator of hands, being happy with their appearance. The “crossed-fingers” gesture occurs nowhere else in Christian religious art. See further comment in CONCLUSIONS, below.

The translucent sphere on the figure’s left hand is identified as of rock crystal: “a particular interest of Leonardo’s.”          Leonardo had a demonstrable interest in one kind of “crystalline sphere”—the archetypal human eye. References to rock crystal may be based on Leonardo’s use in Italian of the expression “la spera cristallina” to signify the lens of the eye. I doubt that devotees would have great success in seeking reference to rock crystal among his writings.

Leonardo is said to have been fascinated by the mechanics of vision, exemplified by this painting’s limited “depth of field,” whereby the gesturing hand is more sharply defined than the face, represented as further away from us.          How strange, if this painting is by Leonardo, that there is no perceptibly limited “depth of field” in other works by him, though atmospheric perspective is used for items in the distance. The face has not Mona Lisa’s subtlety, but lacks definition. Hands, mainly consisting of contours, are easy to define; a face in frontal view framed by hair lacks defining contours, except those of slight internal features. The eyes are deadly dull, lacking Leonardo’s characteristic acuity. Leonardo was interested in the whole complex of visual reception and perception, not merely the mechanical factor.

The curls in Christ’s hair are acclaimed as “of incredible delicacy.”  Though at the same distance as the face they are sharply defined, with no “depth of field” effect diminishing their resemblance to lengths of spiral pasta. 

There is said to be evidence that the picture was painted by a left-hander—with the observation that Leonardo was left-handed.  Such claims are disputable—there are many thousands of left-handers with variant techniques, so that (even if accurate) is hardly even circumstantial evidence.

Several studies by Leonardo of drapery are declared to have been drawn specifically for this painting.  That unattested claim takes no account of other possible causes of the similarity. Some are identified in CONCLUSIONS, below.

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