Leonardo ?

January 17th, 2010 § 7 comments

Old master drawings disgorge in museums just as surely as rivers flow into the sea. Collectors donate their collections to museums for mankind, tax deductions, recognition, and to spite their ungrateful children. Once in museums, it’s over for the trade, mostly. Deaccessioning does happen, but is frowned upon and discourages future donations. Without much supply, dealers and collectors (include myself here) are working with what they have, and that means upgrading attributions.  Museum curators do this too. There is no way they can make the brilliant acquisitions of past curators because of simple lack of supply and the hideous cost of whatever little there is left.  So, art works get reevaluated up, and seldom down, much like Moody’s ratings of instruments in the financial world. (The growing number of Caravaggio pictures, whether in the private realm or museums, is particularly puzzling.)

Newspapers, fed by what seems a PR machine, have been reporting the recent upgrade of an anonymous 19th century drawing to Leonardo. Right out, I am very doubtful.  However, it is always wonderful when something that is thought to be late, is instead very early.  This was the case of a drawing of peonies, in an auction as anonymous, what seemed like another beautiful botanical illustration, and instead turned out to be a preparatory drawing by Dürer’s idol, Martin Schongauer.

Leonardo ? | Portrait of a Young Woman | Pen and brown ink, bodycolor, and colored chalks on vellum | 330 x 239 mm. | Paris ?

The drawing in question is of a young woman, bust length and in absolute profile to the left. The drawing measures 330 x 239 mm, and is executed  in pen and brown ink, brush and bodycolor, and colored chalks on vellum.  The names of Bianca Maria Sforza (1472-1510) and Bianca Giovanna Sforza (1482-1496) have been advanced for the sitter, although this is conjecture. (Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, was Leonardo’s patron from 1482 to 1499 and the idea is to keep it in the family.) If it’s Bianca Maria, the hair and eye color, for starters, don’t match up with a portrait in the Washington’s National Gallery of an older Sforza by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis. I haven’t read enough about the Profile to know how this is reconciled by the owner’s expert team. Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis’s portrait of an unknown woman in the Ambrosiana, illustrated below, and which shows a scarily similar hairdo (minus the coazzone, coazzone is the name of the braid in Milanese dialect) and knotted hairnet, was once attributed to Leonardo. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to me if we start gearing up for an upgrade of this picture back to Leonardo if any trace of left-handed hatching (more about this below) can be found.

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis | Bianca Maria Sforza | Oil on Panel | 51 x 32.5 cm. | National Gallery | Washington

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis | Portrait of a Woman | Tempera and Oil on Panel | 51 x 34 cm. | Ambrosiana | Milan

Martin Kemp and Carlo Pedretti, two towering figures in the Leonardo world, are convinced the drawing is by Leonardo. Kemp’s writing/written a book on the drawing. Nicholas Turner, known for his seriousness and excellent eye, is also convinced of the attribution to Leonardo. His essay, download available here, from the site of Lumiere Technology, a Paris firm involved in high high resolution imaging. Turner writing in 2008, anticipates what critics will find hard to square: that there are no Leonardo drawings on vellum and that the mixture of media–pen and brown ink, bodycolor, and colored chalks, in combination and so highly finished–isn’t found in other drawings of the master. He also carefully ties what Leonardo writes about art, and writes about ideal beauty, to the drawing. Skeptics will say this is being done because the visual evidence–other drawings–is so scanty.

The owner, pushing hard to make the case for his Leonardo, and not wanting to rely solely on connoisseurship, has had the vellum carbon dated to between 1440 and 1650 and had fingerprint analysis done by one Peter Paul Biro.  A scientific study of the pigments will also be interesting. In writing this post, I tried to find out about Biro and it seems his reputation in the fingerprint community is not great. Here is a video of a detective and fingerprint expert named Tom Hanley from Long Island poking holes in one of Biro’s prior projects involving Jackson Pollock fingerprints. Hanley in the video is circumspect, but it seems Biro was enhancing and reading into the fingerprints when there was insufficient evidence.

If the vellum is from 1440 – 1650, as one test has shown, the drawing is probably not from the 19th century (it would be worth investigating when forgers started using period paper, vellum, panels etc.).  Early paper is easily had from the end papers of books and the drawing forger Eric Hebborn made full use of such paper. Vellum too could be easily recycled from book covers, say account books, which are often not tooled and loosely cover boards. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t look like a Hebborn, at least the ones I remember illustrated in his memoir. Hebborn’s normally draws sheets of studies, often attempting to show the thought process of the artist, and to boost credibility, he includes inscriptions and collection marks. His use of inscriptions was pointed out to me by Konrad Oberhuber, whom Hebborn hated for first identifying his forgeries, and in childish repayment Hebborn misspelled Oberhuber’s name in his memoir–something Oberhuber found very amusing.

Many drawings purported to be by Leonardo, a left-handed artist,  have been discounted because of telltale right-handedness, a characteristic most easily seen in shading or hatching. Left-handed draftsmen  shade \\\ and right-handed artists like this ///. The draftsman of the Profile is left-handed and this is considered a pivotal point in attributing the drawing to Leonardo. The hatching can be seen just outside the profile. A clear example of Leonardo’s hatching can be seen in this study in Turin.

Leonardo | Study for Angel – Virgin of the Rocks | Metalpoint, brush and white heightening on prepared paper | 181 x 159 mm. | Biblioteca Reale | Turin

None of Leonardo’s followers were left-handed and this makes differentiating Leonardo drawings from those of his followers fairly easy. Only fairly easy because they sometimes copied the left-handed shading, probably by turning the paper upside down. (Followers of Leonardo, and artists ever since, have copied works of the master as part of their training. That there are no copies of the Profile should be taken into account. ) Nowadays, about one in ten people are left-handed, but in the past people were discouraged from writing or drawing with their left, or sinister hand. Still, there have been plenty of left-handed artists (I hope eventually to post a table of these draftsmen).  Also, those who were left-handed and adapted to fully using their right hand, might well be considered ambidextrous and be able to shade with either hand.

Some clever people commenting on the blog the Daily Kos have said that the sitter looks like Kirsten Dunst, the American actress. There is a definite resemblance. And this is where the drawing fails to convince me. The sitter conforms much more to a 19th or 20th century ideal of what a Renaissance beauty should look like, rather than a 15th century ideal, and much more to a Northern European than to an Italian ideal.  (Yes, what Errol Morris was talking about in his Hans van Meegeren and Vermeer series of articles in the NYT.) At times I feel like I’m looking at Rapunzel.  The Louvre’s Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, a cartoon in colored chalks, with anything approaching the finish of the Profile, is very different. Very different.  The d’Este portrait, with the body turned out to the viewer, is far more innovative–and what one would expect from Leonardo– than the strict Profile, where the pose looks back to an earlier 15th century type which Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, and the Pollaiolo, had so famously exploited.

Leonardo | Isabella d’Este | Preparatory cartoon in black, red, and ochre chalks, heightened with white, on prepared white paper and pricked for transfer | 610 x 465 mm. | Louvre | Paris

I can’t keep but thinking that draftsman who executed this had seen not only the portraits of Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, but was also informed of Hans Holbein the Younger (left-handed draftsman). What would be interesting is to see the early 19th century German drawings Kate Ganz, a former owner of the drawing, and the experts at Christie’s (OMD NY 30 January 1998, lot 402) based their ideas upon. After some looking, I have to say that I can’t find any similar 19th century portraits.  Maybe it is by Leonardo, but it would then be like the Michelangelo painting after Schongauer which recently caused a stir, an anomaly. Another possibility is that an earlier drawing was colored and reworked in the 19th century, the fate of too many drawings, and then everyone could be right at the same time.

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§ 7 Responses to Leonardo ?"

  • Brooke da Imola says:

    In reply to: “…this is where the drawing fails to convince me. The sitter conforms much more to a 19th or 20th century ideal of what a Renaissance beauty should look like, rather than a 15th century ideal, and much more to a Northern European than to an Italian ideal…At times I feel like I’m looking at Rapunzel.”

    Actually, the sitter in this portrait “La Bella Principessa” conforms very highly with the ideals of Italian Renaissance beauty. Fair hair and skin were highly regarded as the apex of beauty, as fashionable ladies would go through treatments to lighten their hair and skin to mimic this ideal. Absolutely! She is like a Rapunzel – after all, Rapunzel is a variant on the old Italian tale known as “The Maiden in the Tower” or “Petrosinella” written in the early 17th century.

    I guess my point (other than splitting hairs!)is to say it is very accurately placed contextually and as you stated, Leonardo da Vinci was an innovator, so why not use this media…he was always trying new things. Also, there is nothing else like it, and that in itself is also a point in favor of it being by da Vinci! As you noted above, the sitter is definitely not Bianca Maria Sforza, Ludovico’s Il Moro’s niece; she was married off to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian (hence her betrotal portrait above is thought to be depicting her wearing a good part of her dowry!), If she is a Sforza princess, she is probably Bianca (1483-1496), illegitimate daughter of Ludovico and his mistress Bernardina de Corradis (as you state above). The thought that da Vinci wouldn’t make a portrait in profile later than the 1480s is strange – why not? In 1496 it was still the preferred method of depicting a lady in a betrotal portrait. To honor someone’s beauty, achievements, and character (1480s “Lady with an Ermine” comes to mind)a frontal or 3/4 view would be ideal. His portrait cartoon of Isabella d’Este – in partial profile was drawn in 1499 after all. It was never transferred to a mounting but had been pricked in advance (it was not a finished product, so to speak). To make a long comment short, her coloring and profile position are precisely why I’m swayed! Sorry is I sound like an arrogant know-it-all (I’m certain I know relatively little, and am just restating others original ideas!) Cheerio!

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    Many thanks for your comments. Pisanello, the Pollaiolo brothers, Piero della Francesca all painted fair haired women. Most of Botticellis women were tow headed. Leonardo painted fair haired women. What I was trying to say is that Giovanni Amborogio de Predis portrait of Bianca Maria shows a woman with different hair and eye color.

    I’ve read something of the Profile being considered an image akin to a pic uploaded to a dating site. As far as I know, most 15th Italian portraits of women were painted after marriage. Bianca Giovanna Sforza was betrothed to a local Milanese. He would have known what she looked like. Also, I don’t think they were so hung up on the looks of a wife since they could have as many mistresses as they wanted. The property was much more important.

    To me, she looks much more like a sitter in a Holbein portrait. Actually, the more I look at it the more I worry about it being a pastiche and more 1996 than 1496.

    All best,

  • Brooke da Imola says:

    Thank you for the information! This is such an intriguing subject…I see what you are saying and I agree completely that it is not of Bianca Maria. I was just pointing out that fair coloring was the Petrarchan ideal much used for commemorative portraits during the Italian Renaissance in general.

    Absolutely, Bianca was known to Galeazzo Sanseverino as she had been bethrothed to him since she was 8 years old (the wedding was orginally formalized in 1489). To say this is a betrothal picture for Bianca Sforza to wed Galeazzo Sanseverino would be unfounded for sure. If this is Bianca Sforza (1483-1496), as you say it wouldn’t necessarily be a betrothal portrait. It may have been commissioned to celebrate consummation which didn’t take place until 1495), or it could have been painted after her death less than a year later.

    Either way, I am not totally convinced that this is of Bianca Sforza – m. Sanseverino; maybe the experts are hoping to positively identify her as such because it fits nicely with it being by Leonardo at the height of his career at the Sforza court. She could very well be a minor Milanese or even Florentine noblewoman. It could equally be Anna Sforza, sister of Bianca Maria, and niece of Ludovico. She was married to Alfonso d’Este in 1491. She also died very young, in 1496 or 1497 after giving birth. As you say, there is not enough documentary evidence to positively id the sitter one way or the other. Leonardo’s inventory notes of the early 1480s hint that this might be what is described as “head of a young woman with beautiful hair.” Since I am of the opinion that it is earlier than mid 1490s, I like this idea. Now, I love that title, I think I’ll start referring to it by that name!

    Ach! Holbein…my other love. I have contemplated many a Tudor court Holbein sketch. Holbein’s portraits are realistically and perspectively perfect, like Leonardo’s formal portraits – even as early as Ginevra de Benci (1470s) – but especially Il Moro’s mistresses. To me they are exact interpretations of the sitter and their personality. I have looked at length at Holbein’s Tudor court drawings, but his Basel works are equally perfect. The picture of Bonifacius Amerbach is made with colored chalks and ink as well. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bonifacius_Amerbach,_drawing_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg

    Have a great day, and thanks again for your expert insight and wonderfully interesting article on “Profile.”

    ~ Brooke

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    I agree with you about Holbein drawings. Someday I have to get myself to Basel and have a look at all the Holbein drawings, of the brothers and the father.

    In my last comment, I was maybe too negative on the Profile. In the same way that it’s better to set a guilty person free than imprison someone wrongfully, it’s better to include rather than exclude drawings.

    Will surely be interesting to read what C. Pedretti has to say.

    All best wishes,


  • ps says:

    The absolute lack of vitality and energy in this very static (but beautiful) work immediatley made me say no way, no how, absolutley not by Leonardo’s lively, unique , and incomparably masterful hand.
    The left cross hatching looks forced, choppy, and uneven and Leonardo’s cross hatching is so precise it looks like he measured the spaces in between each incredibly straight but fluid line! There’s just no fluidity or effortlessness in this piece and it looks tooo contrived.
    Also, the lower eyelid is far too well defined (as are other elements) and it looks like nothing similar to any other eye he’s done that I’ve seen in any drawing, sketch, or painting.
    My gut reaction upon first sight was that it’s either a fabulous contemporary fake or a true late Renaissance to 18th century piece but definitely NOT by Leonardo. Looks more Germanic to me.
    Where’s the PROVENANCE? Odd how it’s lacking and never mentioned.
    A very beautiful work but just far too static and lifeless for any relation to Leonardo.

  • Giselle says:

    I completely agree with the “PS” post…this drawing is so obviously not even close to Leonardo’s mastery and technique and screams either blatant fraud or mediocre 18th to 19th century artist using widely available older vellum. Perhaps not to deceive at all, but just to emulate the style of earlier Italian works. OR, it’s just a recent forgery on appropriately aged supports with intent to deceive.

    Please consider and do extensive research into the parties involved in this case, convicted scam artists and a hopelessly pathetic “scholar” on Leonardo lost in a fantasy…OR JUST PROMOTING THE SALE OF HIS BOOK ABOUT THIS LOST DRAWING!

    The drawing is SO OVERWORKED, stiff, and monotonous that it amazes that anyone could possibly attribute this to any master, let alone the ultimate master Leonardo. It’s an abject insult to him. Look at the nostril alone! SO overdone and overworked in definition and heavy handed dead looking shading.
    And I agree that the lower eye area (and entire eye, in fact) called the “lower eyelid margin” is far too well outlined and defined to be the work of any master. The entire piece is far too overworked, period. There’s no fluidity to this piece, no life, no mark of genius like Leonardo’s inimitable ease and lively precision.
    I also agree with the limp, awkward, attempt at left crosshatching. And all of the cross hatching in general…not anywhere close to the fluidity and perfection of a master.
    And the hair is poorly done, heavily overworked, and absolutely contradictory to Leonardo’s voluptuous flowing strands that amaze in their lively dynamism.

    This is a very pretty work at first glance, but the more it’s examined, the more overworked and mediocre it is. But it never struck me as even close to Leonardo’s mastery at any time, including first glance. I wouldn’t even buy it if it was claimed to be VERY early work by him in his youth. The genius simply isn’t there…it’s flat, heavy handed, and ultimately boring. And MEDIOCRE in the draftsmanship.

  • Renatius Barton says:

    Definitely NOT a Leonardo.