Lost Leonardo? The Drawing, the Painting, and the Swiss Bank Vault

As a child, I was always fascinated by a famous portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci.  A reproduction of the drawing, which is presently in The Louvre, illustrated a section about the d’Este sisters in a large book about the Italian Renaissance.  While the accompanying portrait of Beatrice, supposedly the more beautiful of the two, left me unimpressed as to either beauty or technical skill, I found the near-contemporaneous portrait by Leonardo absolutely captivating. While not as pretty as her sister, Isabella in her portrait seemed to be the deeper soul, more interesting and more immediate, her portrait looking like a faded photograph.

So it was particularly fascinating to read that authorities have recovered what at least one expert believes to be the finished Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, of which The Louvre drawing would be a preparatory sketch.  The work, which had been in Rome but was later moved to a bank vault in Switzerland, was at the point of being illegally sold when it was seized. Italian law is extremely strict when it comes to works of art leaving the country, and the owners of this work had not obtained either permission to send the work abroad, nor an export license to sell it.

Looking at the painting itself, while one can immediately spot the similarity to the Leonardo drawing of Isabella d’Este, the finished work is somewhat different in appearance. It is obscured by what, to many eyes, may seem unusual add-ons. Unlike the image of Isabella in the drawing, the figure in the painting is wearing a diadem, and rests her right arm, which is holding a palm branch, atop what appears to be a wheel.

For those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are familiar with Christian iconography, these attributes will immediately identity the figure not as Isabella d’Este, but as St. Catherine of Alexandria. A popular subject in Italian Renaissance art, Catherine was a princess martyred in the 4th century persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius, hence the crown of a princess and the palm of a martyr. One of the instruments of her torture before her death was a spiked wheel [ N.B. which is where the spinning firework known as a “Catherine Wheel” got its name.]

While this may seem an odd thing to have happened to the portrait of one of the most famous women of the Renaissance, such “makeovers” were not unusual in art history. The most obvious example would be the placement of strategic plaster fig leaves over the genitalia of nude sculptures, but even in painting, when a work seemed to be dingy or in need of a facelift, an owner or a dealer might have the piece repainted to turn it into something more appealing to a particular buyer.

Discoveries of long-missing masterworks beneath centuries of overpaint still occur on a regular basis.  However, rediscovering a major painting by Leonardo da Vinci would be quite the coup, if this work is eventually authenticated. Personally, I am suspicious, for two reasons.

First, whereas much of the 20th century was spent by art historians debunking overly-optimistic attributions of Old Master paintings and sculptures to famous artists, since the beginning of the 21st century we seem to have been heading headlong in the opposite direction. We have been rediscovering lost paintings and sculptures by the great names of Western art all over the place. Is this because of our access to improved technology and greater levels of scholarly collaboration on an international basis, or is there some other explanation?

Second, while it is difficult to make a judgment from a single photograph, to me the painting looks wrong. The one thing which da Vinci did better than anyone else was hands. Look at the panoply of hands in his Last Supper, even in its sorry current state, and you will see what I mean. Isabella’s hand however, if this is indeed her portrait, is awkward. Her unnaturally long index finger doesn’t seem to point so much as bounce uncomfortably in the breeze, like a tree branch about to snap. Her curled fingers are too stumpy to be part of the same hand that would hold such an enormous finger.

Of course, I am perfectly happy to be proven wrong. If this is a missing Leonardo, the final product of a project whose preparation was so well-known, then with proper cleaning and restoration, it would be of immense importance in art history. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what science tells us.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500) The Louvre, Paris

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500)
The Louvre, Paris

Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30’s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC