Graham-Dixon on Leonardo

November 12 2011

Image of Graham-Dixon on Leonardo

Picture: Hermitage

Andrew Graham-Dixon knows a thing or two about the Renaissance, so his review in The Telegraph of the Leonardo exhibition is worth a read. He likes the exhibition, but like many reviewers is not taken with Salvator Mundi:

The picture undeniably displays a number of the painter’s characteristic devices and mannerisms, but there are other aspects of it that seem foreign to Leonardo himself.

He was prized by his contemporaries as one of the most innovative and forceful painters of emotion, yet the face of this Christ seems peculiarly inert. Taken individually, its elements are convincing enough, but viewed as a whole its expression seems to lack a certain subtle Leonardo magic: the spark of inner life and feeling.

Graham-Dixon might have other reasons for doubting the attribution - but the one given above seems too subjective. When I saw it, I felt precisely the opposite - I felt the picture did have a spark of inner life. Either way, I prefer to focus on the more objective reasons for attributing it to Leonardo, such as the evidence of the technique, the quality visible in the undamaged areas, and the likely origin of the picture. 

On the other hand, Graham-Dixon shares my doubts about the Madonna Litta (above), on loan from the Hermitage. He goes as far as to say that it is certainly not by Leonardo, but by Boltraffio: 

The second questionable “Leonardo” on display is the Virgin and Child from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, long attributed to Leonardo and popularly known as The Madonna Litta. Close by hangs a drawing of The Head of a Woman, owned by the Louvre, which is most definitely by Leonardo and has often been regarded as a preparatory study for The Madonna Litta.

But both the features and the handling set it apart from the far clumsier head of the Virgin in the painting, who looks down at her greedily breastfeeding infant.

Yet more incriminatingly, the display also includes a close study for the head of that same suckling child by the hand of Leonardo’s follower, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. Here the drawing and the painting seem virtually identical to one another. This would seem to be an open-and-shut case: the painting owned by the Hermitage was painted by Boltraffio, not by Leonardo.

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