Tips For Fine Art Collectors

Was the Mona Lisa Painted Twice? Well, actually…


Maybe 30 years ago I was visiting the conservation lab at the LA County Museum of Art and was surprised to see on the easel the Mona Lisa. I was mostly surprised because I knew that the one we’ve all seen never leaves the Louvre… so, what was THIS!?!?

I had just completed a long stint in Italy studying art and looking at this revered painting closely it seemed to walk like a duck and quack like a duck so…

After the Conservation Scientist, John Twilley, that I was visiting let me stew in my thoughts for a few minuted he said something that floored me, “There are five of them. They all look good, but a couple are probably copies. A couple may have been done by Leonardo. Maybe a couple by his workshop” It was really fun to see up close. They never let you get that close in a museum. I love being behind the scenes and “talking shop” with others in my field.

I’m often asked about analyzing and authenticating art. If this subject interests you, you’ll like this article…

Could this new <em>Mona Lisa</em> be Leonardo da Vinci's first attempt to capture art history's most iconic portrait sitter?

A purported version of the world’s most iconic painting, Leonardo da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa, has surfaced in Singapore, and appears to show a younger Mona Lisa in front of a different background. Said by its owners to be by the hand of the Renaissance master, the painting is thought to predate that of Paris’s Louvre by a decade, and is claimed to have undergone scientific analysis that dates the piece to 1503.

Now being shown publicly for the first time at the Arts House in Singapore’s Old Chambers of Parliament, the story being put forth about this unfinished painting is as follows. It’s said to have been purchased by an English noble visiting Italy in 1778. It was rediscovered by British art collector Hugh Blaker in 1913 in Somerset, and became known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa after it was restored in his London studio.

The canvas, which has belonged to an international consortium since 2008, has now embarked on a tour of the Pacific, with stops in Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Australia.

One of the new painting’s champions is Switzerland’s Mona Lisa Foundation, which manages the paintings and began attesting to its authenticity in 2012. “We feel these latest discoveries and new scientific analysis just carried out leave little doubt that it is Leonardo’s work,” foundation vice-president David Feldman told Reuters. ”The vast majority of experts now either agree with us or accept that there is a strong case for our thesis.”

The two versions of Leonardo da Vinci's <em>Mona Lisa</em> side by side.

Of course, it could also be that this Mona Lisa is just another Leonardo forgery, of which there are many (see “A Tale of Two Leonardos“). Leonardo expert Martin Kemp has been quick to voice his skepticism, warning the BBC that ”the fact it’s being shown in Singapore and is not getting an outing in a serious art museum [or] gallery is significant in itself,” and criticizing the work’s landscape and drapery as “inert.”

Should the painting prove authentic, it would seem to debunk at least part of the theory of art historian Angelo Paratico, who recently voiced speculation that the iconic canvas’s sitter was none other than the artist’s mother, and that she was both Chinese and a slave (see “Was the Mona Lisa Leonardo’s Mother and a Chinese Slave?“). If the newly unveiled version of the painting really does date to 1503, it seems to depict a woman in her 20s, even though Leonardo would have been around 50 years old at the time. (The Mona Lisa is more widely believed to be Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant.)

The Isleworth Mona Lisa is the third known copy of the painting, joining the well-known Louvre version, and a more obscure one held at the Pradoin Madrid. Recent comparisons of those two paintings, now thought to have been painted during the same portrait sitting, have raised speculations that together they form a stereoscopic or 3-D image, perhaps the first in history (see “Was Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa the World’s First 3-D Image?“).

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Comments (4)

ErnestDecember 16th, 2014 at 10:05 am

I read the preceding article about the other ‘Mona Lisa’ painting…. but it never mentioned about the support/material on which it was painted! I know there was a special type of wood from a now extinct tree that was used as a painting surface. Why was this very important information never mentioned?! I am certain carbon dating or the more recent technology of the more accurate dating process is used in determining the age of other artifacts, relics, etc….. and this was never discussed either! WHY NOT?

Scott HaskinsDecember 16th, 2014 at 10:20 am

Ernest, thanks for the comment. I’ve never heard the detail about the extinct tree wood. Most all panel renaissance paintings in Italy were done on walnut, some on oak. This painting they are talking about and the painting I saw at the LA County Museum of Art have gone through a battery of tests including the carbon 14 dating of the wood panels. Carbon 14 dating is not an exact science. It gives you an approximate date. But even more important is the fact that you can find (in old houses, on old antiques etc) 400 – 500 year old wood that has ancient milling marks, you can age it and it will give the “correct info” on a carbon 14 test. Wood panels like this are used for fakes. So, age testing the wood is not an absolute confirmation. At most, its only an element or detail in the bigger picture of authentication.

Jim HellorMay 8th, 2016 at 7:31 am

Well, this is quite amazing if you ask me. Such and old painting and it is still answering questions about art these days. Great story!

Chase MillerMay 8th, 2016 at 7:47 am

Very cool. I don’t know if I have ever heard about this. Now I can give some trivia to my art friends to feel like I fit in with them :)

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