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.
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.
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.
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.
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.