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Elusive smile, elusive artist: is the Isleworth Mona Lisa really by Leonardo?

Despite a lavish, 300-page book and a high-profile presentation, strong doubts remain

Geneva

The so-called “Isleworth Mona Lisa”, which its owners claim was painted by Leonardo, possibly with studio assistance, more than a decade before the world-famous painting in the Louvre, has received an unenthusiastic reception from a renowned scholar after its recent showing in Geneva.

One of the leading experts on Leonardo, Oxford University’s Martin Kemp, has been outspoken in his criticism, saying the research is a “mish-mash of suppositions”. Another expert cited at the launch is now distancing himself from the attribution.

The Isleworth Mona Lisa gained its name a century ago, when it was bought by Hugh Blaker, a critic and restorer who lived in the west London suburb. In 1962, the picture was acquired by the London dealer and collector Henry Pulitzer and when he died in 1979 it went to his partner Elisabeth Meyer. Following her death in 2008, the Isleworth Mona Lisa was acquired by an international consortium. The previous three owners believed the work was by Leonardo, but it has generally not been accepted by Leonardo scholars.

Foundation’s claims

The Mona Lisa Foundation, a research organisation set up by the consortium that owns the picture, invited the international press to see the painting and listen to the findings of its research at the end of September. The foundation is headed by the Zurich lawyer Markus Frey, who claims the painting is by Leonardo. The foundation says that the face was painted by Leonardo, although there may have been some studio assistance in other parts of the picture.

It backed up its research with a lavish 300-page book. It presents evidence that the pigments are consistent with those of the early 16th century, carbon-dating of the canvas shows that there is a 95% chance that it is pre-1500 and new X-ray and infrared images are reproduced.

There are numerous differences between the Louvre and Isleworth works. The Isleworth picture has a much simpler background landscape, the columns painted at the sides are more prominent and the sitter appears considerably younger. It is also painted on canvas, whereas the Louvre’s original (and most of Leonardo’s paintings) are painted on panels.

At the press launch, expert opinion from Leonardo specialists was given, but much of it was frustratingly vague. Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo in the town of Vinci, concluded that the Isleworth picture is “an important work of art deserving respect and strong consideration”, but he failed to comment meaningfully on the attribution.

Carlo Pedretti, the director of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies in Los Angeles, sent a letter. This commented on the sitter having a “most beautiful face [which] is characterised by a countenance that is strikingly younger than that of the Louvre painting”. But Pedretti did not give his views on the attribution.

Pascal Cotte, a French specialist in imaging techniques, is recorded in the book as having “indicated in 2010 that the same artist likely executed the earlier and Louvre versions”. When we asked Cotte about his conclusion, he denied having said that Leonardo executed the Isleworth Mona Lisa. He has now asked for his name to be removed from the Mona Lisa Foundation website. However, John Asmus, a research physicist at the University of California, San Diego, who deals with art historical issues, believes the Isleworth Mona Lisa was “executed in part by Leonardo”.

Martin Kemp has seen a high-resolution image of the picture and read the accompanying book, although he has not examined the painting. He argues against it being an earlier version of the Louvre’s painting, but rather a later copy. Kemp also lists details that he says shows that the copyist failed to understand Leonardo’s original.

Kemp says the artist of the Isleworth version has not appreciated the structure of the sitter’s dress, and “renders it lamely”. Her veil has been transformed into “dull stripes of inert highlight” and the rivulet pattern of her hair is rendered in “a routine manner”. Kemp dismisses the landscape background as “truly bad”, with no logic to the apparent reflection. The sitter’s face has been “conventionally prettified”.

Kemp argues that the X-ray and infrared reflectogram “do not reveal any of the characteristics of Leonardo’s preparatory methods, in terms of fiddling with his compositions”. He says that the book “claims that none of the evidence of scientific examination indicates that the Isleworth picture is not by Leonardo”. But this does not prove that it is by the master. Kemp concludes that the picture is merely one of the numerous copies produced later in the 16th century, after Leonardo’s death in 1519.

In a separate case, in February the Prado’s version of the Mona Lisa was found, after scientific research supported by the Prado and the Louvre’s curators, to be a studio copy, made alongside Leonardo’s original (see www.theartnewspaper.com).

The Mona Lisa Foundation has responded to doubts over the Isleworth painting by saying that it will be “pleased to enter into healthy discussions with any expert who has viewed the painting itself and fully considered all the aspects presented”. It is now planning an international tour of the painting, probably beginning in China.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Elusive smile, elusive artist: is this really by Leonardo?'