isleworth mona lisa, hugh blaker, earlier mona lisa
I’m a casual observer of art so me being enthused by the sight of this Mona Lisa (also known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa and the Early Mona Lisa) counts to nothing. There’s only 20 paintings attributed to the great Leonardo da Vinci; art historians believes that 70% of his work has either been lost forever or has yet to be discovered.
But the authenticity of this particular Mona Lisa is very contentious among historians and art experts—is it a copy? Did Da Vinci really made an early version of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa? Or, is this an elaborate forgery?
The popular English art collector Hugh Blaker (himself an accomplished painter) obtained the painting from a noble family in Somerset.—believing that only Da Vinci’s hand could have painted such a portrait. The collector then shipped it to Boston because of the looming war with the Germans (WWI). To his credit, he had it authenticated by esteemed experts, connoisseurs of Da Vinci’s work but unfortunately, it was never accepted as a work of Leonardo by the public in his life time. It would be locked and hidden from the world for many decades. Then came Henry Pulitzer, Swiss millionaire art collector, who bought Blaker’s estate (which included all of Blaker’s collection) and renewed calls for the recognition of the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” as a Da Vinci original. Now, a group called The Mona Lisa Foundation (they own the rights for the painting) has picked up where Blaker and Pulitzer left off.
Leonardo Da Vinci, considered to be the greatest genius of the renaissance era, if not of all time, did not sign or name his works; attributing a painting to him has always been left to those who studied his artistic methods and history. Turns out that the Da Vinci scholarship does not always speaks with a single voice. For those interested in understanding the historical background of the Mona Lisa (obviously, if you’ve read this blog this far!) I recommend the well researched PBS episode “The Mona Lisa Mystery” about the Isleworth Mona Lisa.
There are several historical accounts of an unfinished portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (Mona Lisa); the one in Louvre (completed in the latter part of LDV’s life) is a finished painting. The biographer of Leonardo (who interviewed a close apprentice of LDV) had confirmed an unfinished Mona Lisa in the early 1500’s. Apparent is that the Isleworth and the Louvre Mona Lisa are two different paintings; the latter appears to be the older version of the primer. Remember, Da Vinci is adept in human anatomy; he likely painted the same woman but advanced her age to appear mature.
The Isleworth painting is a commission from a rich Italian silk trader, whose wife, Lisa (Mona is archaic Italian for Lady), had recently given birth (which explains the plump appearance); this was his gift to his wife. They never received the portrait; there was no payment made either. Some historians suggest that the artist never finished the work.
But the Mona Lisa in Paris is a finished work—why would Leonardo keep it to himself? Is it possible that the Isleworth version was what the artist was working on that he was unable to complete? Did he made a second one after perfecting some techniques?
But perhaps the most compelling confirmation that the Isleworth Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo is Raphael’s ink sketch (which is also in the Louvre museum); he drew a much younger woman and behind her are these two Greek columns. The one in Louvre does not have these conspicuous structure nor does it resembles Raphael’s drawing; the Isleworth Mona Lisa, on the other hand is a lady in her 20’s and it does have two Greek columns. Was this the painting the young Raphael saw in Leonardo’s studio?
What’s remarkable is that the Isleworth Mona Lisa has passed carbon dating tests and other modern scientific methods; like that performed by Professor Asmus, a reputed physicist, using statistical analysis of the digitize version of the two Mona Lisa. His conclusion was that both were painted by the same artist.
There’s only one detail that’s puzzling about this Mona Lisa. I gazed at it for a good 20 (or more) minutes and noticed that there’s not a trace of blemish on it. It is as if it just came out of a studio, it’s so fresh; it’s glowing, indeed an amazing work of art. Now, the Louvre’s Mona Lisa had undergone several restorations, but if you inspect large format photos of it on the internet, you could still notice visible cracks and other minor flaws owing to its oldness.
I should stop here as I am probably causing much irritation to people who knows more about this subject. So, if you’re in Singapore, go see this—it’s worth your 20 bucks (that’s Singaporean bucks). The exhibit runs until February 11 in The Arts House (the country’s old Parliament house).