In 1913, a 40 year old art collector called Hugh Blaker was looking through a dusty art collection in a manor house in Somerset when he made a remarkable discovery. Hanging on the wall, unnoticed for 100 years, was a portrait of a young woman which appeared in almost every respect to be a youthful version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. Her serene face and gentle smile were of a woman about 10 years younger than in the original, but the pose, the right hand resting on the left - a sign of a virtuous wife - was the same as was the style of dress. The only outstanding difference was the newly discovered picture was painted on canvas while the original was on a poplar board. The backgrounds were almost different. The young ‘Mona Lisa’ had columns to left and right and a rather sombre landscape behind. The older Mona Lisa, now hanging in the Louvre, was against an open and finely painted vista showing a road, a river and a bridge. The overall sense of tranquillity in both paintings was the same - as if both were painted by the same hand.
Ever since the 16th century, sources have suggested that Da Vinci painted two versions of the Mona Lisa, one - a portrait of Lisa del Gioncono made in 1503 for her husband Francesco del Giocono and another, completed in 1517, for Giuliano de Medici, Leonardo’s patron. Hugh Blaker immediately suspected this forgotten painting to be the rumoured ‘early version’ - so he did what any smart art collector would do. He bought the painting and took it home to his studio in Church Street, Isleworth. The portrait of the ‘young Mona Lisa’ soon gained the name, “The Isleworth Mona Lisa”.
When Blaker died in 1936 the painting went to an American collector Henry Pulitzer who sold a house and all its contents to buy it. It was later bought by an international consortium who did what any smart international consortium would do. They stuck it into a bank vault in Switzerland where it has remained for the last 40 years.
Last week the portrait was finally unveiled to the public in Geneva. , After 35 years of detailed research and examination, the Mona Lisa Foundation announced “The painting predates the famed 16th-century masterpiece by some 11 or 12 years based on regression tests, mathematical comparisons and historical and archival records.” A member of the Foundation, art historian Stanley Feldman added, _“So far, not one scientific test has been able to disprove that the painting is by Leonardo.
Martin Kemp - (no, not the bloke from ‘Spandau Ballet’ and Eastenders) - an Oxford University professor and Leonardo expert, countered with “The reliable primary evidence provides no basis for thinking that there was ‘an earlier’ portrait of Lisa del Giocondo”. Although he accepted that scientific analysis cannot categorically deny that Da Vinci did not paint it, Kemp added “The infrared reflectography and X-ray points very strongly to its not being by Leonardo.”
Which is the original?
Comparing the 2 paintings, the original Mona Lisa and the Isleworth version, Prof Kemp said “The Isleworth Mona Lisa miss-translates subtle details of the original, including the sitter’s veil, her hair, the translucent layer of her dress, the structure of the hands …” and… “The landscape is devoid of atmospheric subtlety. The head, like all other copies, does not capture the profound elusiveness of the original.”
Another art expert who chipped in was Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci. “The Isleworth Mona Lisa is an important work of art deserving respect and strong consideration – as well as a scientific, historic and artistic debate among specialists rather than a purely media interest. Scientific tests don’t demonstrate the authenticity (and) the autography of a painting, but demonstrate it’s from a certain era, whether the techniques are similar or not. Here, there are many open questions.”
For a final word I asked a man at the Isleworth bus stop for his opinion. He said that he didn’t know, didn’t care and wondered what time the next H37 was due.
The Louvre Museum, who own the original, declined to comment, particularly about the H37.
– from Martyn Day