Skepticism is in order for the Isleworth Mona Lisa

The Post ran a picture of the so-called Isleworth Mona Lisa in today’s paper, a cleverly composed image that shows two hands pulling back golden curtains, with what appears to be the most iconic image in the world in a bare room, mounted on a white panel. The photograph plays into the drama of the Mona Lisa, seeming to reveal theatrically a new version of the Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece that hangs in the Louvre.

Skepticism is in order. Many scholars doubt the claim that this is an earlier Leonardo work of the same subject, likely Lisa Gherardini. They base those doubts on wide range of concerns, from the fact that it is painted on canvass rather than wood, stylistic issues in details of the portrait, and technical analysis. But the Mona Lisa Foundation, which has been charged by the painting’s owners to look into those concerns, has judged the work at least partially by Leonardo, and likely a painting that has often been thought to have existed by some scholars who have poured over the sometimes conflicting accounts of the artist’s career.

Here are two useful details, taken from the Foundation’s website:

Q: Who owns the painting? Does the foundation own the painting?

A: The painting is owned by an international consortium, which wishes to remain private. It has entrusted the foundation to execute all necessary investigations to assess whether it is in fact Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’, and to divulge the results of these investigations to the greatest population.

And:

Q. Are you planning to exhibit the painting publicly?

A. Yes, the foundation is planning to commence a series of exhibitions around the world, beginning in Asia in 2013.

 

The website is careful to say that the foundation is not the owner of the paintings, and the consortium of owners and the foundation are separate entities. But the Asian tour is enough to set off some serious doubts about whether there’s a bit of publicity wrangling going on here.

The idea of a second Mona Lisa has been a popular theory for a long time. Donald Sassoon, in his book “Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon,” explains the appeal this way:

“The idea that the Mona Lisa may have started life as the portrait of Lisa and ended as someone else’s opens up further possibilities. There is a ‘two Lisas’ hypothesis: Leonard first painted Lisa and handed the portrait over to her husband, and this is the portrait describe by Vasari; but he made a copy, then altered its features, idealising them, and took that with him to France. The first portrait was lost. The second survives and is the one we know and love. There is no real evidence for any of this, but the theory has its charm: perhaps the first portrait was not irretrievably lost, in which case it could be anywhere, perhaps in someone’s attic. When we are not sure of something, anything is possible.”

Fantasies about the picture—is it a self-portrait of Leonardo in drag?—are often more fun than the real thing, which very few people have ever really seen (it sits behind so much protective glass, and is so difficult to approach given crowds in the Louvre, that looking at it closely is impossible). Yet in a perverse way, even if the public is being sold a fantasy about a second Mona Lisa, there is something appealing about a new version that might deflate the iconic status of the old one. The Mona Lisa is a victim of its success, the most egregious case of the “winner takes all” phenomenon in the annals of art history. It is a great painting, and an important one in the history of art and the career of Leonardo; but it would function better as a living work of art if it had to work harder for the acclaim it so reflexively receives. Competing with another “Mona Lisa” might force us to actually look at it. If there were ten more Mona Lisas, perhaps the one in the Louvre would be sufficiently devalued in the popular imagination to come out of its enforced hiding-in-plain-sight at the Louvre. Perhaps, like equally great works of Leonardo on view at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it could be presented to the public a bit more democratically, out in the open, at eye level, like any other painting. And then we might learn why it is so great.

 

READ MORE: Double Take: Mona Lisa

 

 

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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