Is This The Lost Leonardo? by David Lloyd Glover
I say no, but we will get back to that later. This November 9th the London’s National Gallery will be exhibiting Leonardo. And included among other masterpieces like “Lady and the Ermine” gallery goers will be able to ponder the ‘lost” Leonardo.
Titled “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World) this piece is a half-length portrait of Christ. Christ is holding a crystal globe that represents the earth. He points to the heavens, as was the accepted gesture in religious paintings of the time. Although in other portraits by Leonardo, and there are precious few, it is the single forefinger that indicates the direction of God.
“Salvator Mundi” is not new to scholars. History has accepted this as work of “circle of” or studio of Leonardo and not by the hand of the master himself. It has only been of recent that scholars are changing their minds and now agreeing that this is an authentic Leonardo. Heavy hitters in the world of Leonardo such as Pietro Marani and art expert Martin Kemp have now indicated their leanings towards this portrait as being the real deal. I haven’t spoken to the scholar Dr. Carlo Pedretti, Dean Emeritus of Italian Studies UCLA recently, but I wonder what his take is on the subject.
It is not always easy to trace the provenance of such an old work like this oil on panel, but it seems likely that Britain’s King Charles I used to hang this somewhere in the palace. The Duke of Buckingham owned it for a period. Then in 1900 Frederick Cook owned the painting. After his passing a descendant of Cook sold the very grimy painting at auction for $125. (I wonder if that included the frame)
Currently a consortium of investors in the US owns the painting, and I am sure they are highly motivated to convince the art world that this is the lost Leonardo. You can only imagine what a real Leonardo might be worth, and they are saying “Salvator Mundi” is valued upwards of $200 million. On the other hand, as a “circle of Leonardo” painting that price drops down to in neighborhood of $150,000 give or take.
Of course all the scientific data is in. The x-rays, carbon dating, etc all point to the fact that this is one very old painting. I don’t think that was ever an issue. The wood panel and the pigments used do indicate that this is a Renaissance era piece of art. The art experts point out the use of Leonardo’s sfumato technique that is essentially dry brushing in soft layers all the edges in the face and hands. Leonardo certainly had that technique down, but then he also trained a lot of artists that worked in his studio to imitate his style.
Now here is why I don’t agree so wholeheartedly as the big name experts that this is by the hand of Leonardo. As an artist myself, I look at paintings a lot differently than many scholars. My eye goes towards construction and problem solving when trying to recreate or fool the eye into perceiving something that isn’t there. First and foremost, Leonardo painted subjects and compositions that were more challenging. He had departed from the flat perspective that had dominated art of the middle ages and was painting in 3D. Look at “La Joconde”, “The Bare Breasted Magdalena” or “Lady and the Ermine” and you’ll see that every body position is at an angle to the viewer infusing the image with a natural and realistic pose that makes for a greater degree of difficulty for the artist. More to Leonardo’s instincts was to show off his enormous skill rather than waste his time on a mundane version of Christ. “Salvatore Mundi” is more like Christ’s passport picture than the enigmatic portraits he created.
The key artistic element of Leonardo was his innate ability to paint below the surface. The emotional power of his subjects came through in a way that no one else could paint. “Mona Lisa” is a prime example of this incredible effect. Christ’s visage in this painting is weak in this area. The eyes in particular are dead and lifeless as if this was a postmortem portrait, and I am sure that was not the intention of the artist. I would not be too popular with those investors who hold title to this work, but I think we would be in danger of passing off what appears to be a workmanlike painting as a masterpiece. It is my opinion that “Salvatore Mundi” does not make the grade.
This article was written by David Lloyd Glover, a wonderful artist that has been featured on Art & Coin Television on multiple occasions.