'The Wrong Leonardo'

January 24 2012

Image of 'The Wrong Leonardo'

Picture: Louvre/National Gallery, London

The art historian and former director of the Warburg Institute Charles Hope has an interesting review of the Leonardo exhibition in the New York Review of Books.* He has titled it 'The Wrong Leonardo', and the 'wrong' picture in this case is the National Gallery's version of the Madonna of the Rocks:

It is perhaps not surprising that in the catalog it is argued at length that the London version of The Virgin of the Rocks, which in the past has often been doubted, is “fully autograph,” like the one in the Louvre. But it is exceedingly unusual for any Renaissance artist to produce two almost identical versions of the same altarpiece, and it is certainly very surprising that Leonardo, who, by all accounts, only painted when he felt inclined to do so and was remarkably cavalier about the wishes of his patrons, should have done such a thing. I believe that the history of the commission, which is unusually well documented, cannot be reconciled with the claims made in the catalog.

Longstanding readers will know that I thought the Paris version is certainly 'better' than the London version of The Rocks, but I would still call both pictures 'Leonardo'. The only question in the London picture is the extent to which Leonardo was involved. Some say entirely; I'd say less than the Paris version, but that it is largely by Leonardo, and we can forgive him if he left parts of it to be completed by highly talented students acting under his supervision. This was normal artistic practice. Charles Hope, however, goes further:

Leonardo’s own involvement, if there was any at all, is likely to have been very limited. It seems entirely out of character that he should have made a copy of one of his own works, but on occasion he certainly allowed others to do so. In comparison with the Louvre version, there is a lack of individuality and inner life in the figures, which now have a strangely gray complexion. Although much of the modeling is of great delicacy and skill, it seems obvious, now that the two pictures can be seen together, that they are not by the same hand.

Like many, Hope doesn't like the Madonna Litta from St Petersburg, and rejects entirely the attribution to Leonardo. He also questions two other works catalogued as 'Leonardo' in the show; the Portrait of a Musician, and the newly discovered Salvator Mundi. On the latter, he writes:

Much more suspect, however, is a recently cleaned painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi from a private collection. This was recorded in a print of the mid-seventeenth century, and the composition is known in other versions. But even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull.

This seems to be yet another case of the Salvator Mundi producing entirely subjective responses. Many of those who have declared it to be either by or not by Leornardo have gone on to describe their reasoning in subjective terms. Here it is too 'dull'. Andrew Graham-Dixon said it lacked 'the spark of inner life and feeling'. Readers will know of other similar views. And I'm sorry, but it isn't good enough. Attributions cannot be made or dismissed on a viewer's own human response to a painting. One person's 'dull' picture can be another's 'magical' one. For example, Richard Dorment remarked that the Salvator Mundi's 'strangeness' made him doubt it - but this is the very same 'strangeness' which made Waldemar like it: 'The sheer strangeness of the image makes it feel Leonardo-esque. No normal painter would have attempted this.' So can we please have proper, evidence-based responses to Salvator Mundi; indeed, to any picture? 

* via Three Pipe Problem

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