Why Leonardo painted not one, but two Mona Lisa portraits

Posted in: The Mona Lisa Myth
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As we saw, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci remains a mystery—the source of a growing mythology that continues to confound scholars around the world. Our leading witness, the 16th-century artist and author Giorgio Vasari, claims that the work was never finished—but the portrait in the Louvre most certainly is. The same Vasari extols the beauty of the portrait’s eyelashes and eyebrows—but the lady in the Louvre doesn’t have any. All evidence suggests that Leonardo started the portrait in 1503—but the style of the Louvre Mona Lisa decidedly belongs to his late period, post-1510. One source says the portrait was bought by King François I of France upon Leonardo’s death in 1519; another claims it was still in the possession of Leonardo’s companion Salaì many years later. And so forth and so on.

For us, however, the solution is rather obvious. Our sources from the 16th century contradict each other simply because they aren’t talking about the same painting. When we consider this possibility—that Leonardo painted not one but two versions of the Mona Lisa—all of the disputes and inconsistencies suddenly begin to resolve themselves.The idea that Leonardo painted two versions of the Mona Lisa was already suggested as early as 1584 in the book Trattato dell’arte della pittura, scoltura et architettura (On the Art of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) by the artist and theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo. In this work, Lomazzo casually mentions two Leonardo works, referred to as a Gioconda and a Monna Lisa.

In the years since, several scholars, including the British art historian Donald Sassoon, have also speculated on the existence of another autograph Mona Lisa, but no obvious candidate has been put forward. While there are almost sixty versions of the Mona Lisa in existence, all of these are generally believed to be copies, not autographs. Sassoon wrote in 2001 that, if there had at some point been a “first” portrait, it was now lost.

That changed on September 27, 2012. On that date, a Swiss foundation revealed that a Mona Lisa portrait had been in a Swiss vault, out of the public eye, for over forty years. Acquired by an 18th-century nobleman from Somerset during a “grand tour” of Europe, the painting had first been identified as a possible Leonardo by the art connoisseur Hugh Blaker in 1913. Blaker was curator of the Holburne Art Museum in Bath and a consultant to a number of prominent families and collectors in England, including Gwendoline and Margaret Davies (who eventually bequeathed their fine collection of 19th-century French art to the National Museum of Wales). Blaker, himself a collector, acquired the portrait from a descendant of the Somerset nobleman and added it to his modest but respectable collection at his home on Church Street in Old Isleworth, near London.

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While the Isleworth portrait looks like the Louvre Mona Lisa, it differs from that painting in several significant ways. For one, the lady in this painting—which for lack of a better term was referred to as the Isleworth Mona Lisa—had certain attributes that the Louvre portrait lacked, such as a set of columns on either side of the sitter, exactly as shown in Raphael’s 1504 drawing. This would appear to rule out the possibility that the portrait was a copy of the Louvre version, where no such columns are visible, only their bases. And whereas the lady’s position was very similar to the Louvre painting, the sitter was obviously much younger, much livelier than her Paris counterpart. Lastly, the background was not at all like the one shown in the Louvre version; even to uneducated eyes, it was clear that this part of the painting was unfinished.

Before the painting could be subjected to the scrutiny of leading Leonardo experts, two world ears intervened. Britain declared war on Germany and Austria on August 1, 1914 after German troops violated the neutrality of Belgium, which Britain had sworn to defend by treaty. To ensure its safekeeping, Blaker decided to ship the Isleworth portrait to the United States, where it was stored in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. When Blaker passed away in 1936, the painting was briefly exhibited at the Leicester Galleries, together with other works from the Blaker Collection.

Then, in 1962, the publisher and media magnate Henry F. Pulitzer, himself an avid art collector, discovered that the painting was up for sale. In his book, Pulitzer later wrote that he had first seen the work during the 1936 show at the Leicester Galleries, and fallen in love with it. Convinced that this was an early Leonardo version of the Mona Lisa, Pulitzer decided to acquire it at any cost. In the end, Pulitzer was forced to sell “a large number of paintings in my collection” as well as a “house with all of its contents” in order to raise the required sum. But, as he wistfully added, “to realize this dream, no sacrifice was too much.”

Consequently, for the third time in little more than fifty years, the portrait changed hands, only to be locked behind closed doors in a private collection in Bern, Switzerland. This is one of the reasons why the painting has largely been ignored in the post-war Leonardo literature. While the Louvre Mona Lisa—and many other works by Leonardo—were subjected to fresh scholarly scrutiny and an escalating battery of tests, the Isleworth Mona Lisa remained unseen, un-admired, and all but forgotten, in a Swiss vault. Until 2012.

Our book, the Mona Lisa Myth, is the first to assess the implications of this discovery, particularly with regard to the other Mona Lisa in the Louvre—and indeed, with regard to Leonardo’s oeuvre altogether. That both portraits were painted by Leonardo is obvious; we have seen the evidence of numerous tests, undertaken in both Paris and Geneva, and more tests are being conducted even as this book goes to press. But the real question is, why would Leonardo choose to paint two Mona Lisas? What struck him about this wife of a Florentine merchant that would compel him to return to the subject, many years later, in the contemplative phase of his life?

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