Pinky says: The Divine Leonardo and La Bella Principessa
We are now faced with the story of the month or the year or the century in the art world. It is the discovery of a drawing under serious consideration as being the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Experts are weighing in on both sides of the question as to its validity. Lawsuits are multiplying against a leading auction house’s estimation of the work. Technology meets art history along the way. This is perhaps the most exciting debate to have hit the art news. Is it or is it not the work of the divine Leonardo? Ask Martin Kemp, a leading scholar of Leonardo, in Oxford, England. Kemp’s opinions carry the weight of history; they can place a painting securely within the world’s cultural heritage and forever celebrated in museums or headed for the trashcan and further obscurity. His approval is so valuable that he must guard against forgery of his name. Kemp refuses to accept payment for his services to avoid becoming entangled with any financial interest that could undercut his opinion of the work. He has spent more than 40 years in “the Leonardo business” publishing articles on nearly every aspect of the artist’s life. He knows the brushstrokes, composition, iconography, and pigments that reveal an artist’s hidden identity. But he also relies on his eye and his knowledge for an almost instantaneous estimation of the work.
So it was a shock to Kemp to receive an e-mail of a drawing on vellum of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, with pale skin and glowing brown hair pulled back in a long ponytail. Her profile intrigued him. The visible eye had a lifelike translucence. Her upper lip pressed secretively against her lower one. Her features had been rendered with pen and colored chalks. Kemp felt a shiver of recognition. He felt that he had found a work from the hand of Leonardo. The drawing had no provenance; it seemed to have come from nowhere. Kemp decided that he must see the work and went to a warehouse in Zurich where armed guards presented the work to him. Kemp studied the work with all his skills and knowledge and spent the next year interrogating the drawing. Only then was he willing to stake his reputation that it was indeed by Leonardo. He suggests that it is a portrait of Bianca Sforza, the Duke of Milan’s illegitimate daughter. At the age of thirteen, she wed Galeazzo Sanseverino, a patron of Leonardo’s, only to die of an abdominal illness 4 months later. Kemp named the portrait La Bella Principessa, the Beautiful Princess. In 2008 he announced to the world that the drawing was the real thing, the first Leonardo masterpiece discovered in a century.
Since then, Kemp’s appraisal and acceptance of the work as Leonardo’s has created a virtual uproar among art historians. Thomas Hoving told the press that La Bella Principessa was too “sweet” to be a Leonardo, since his pictures were “tough as nails.” (Hoving was an imperious figure and eminent eye at the Met.) Carmen Bambach, curator of drawings at the Met, was also unimpressed. She has the most respected eye for Leonardo’s drawings. “With Leonardo you need the niche specialist just as you would not go to a heart specialist if you had a kidney problem.” She noted there is no other example of Leonardo having drawn on vellum. Kemp acceded to this point, but there was evidence that Leonardo had questioned a French painter about the technique. Nevertheless Bambach, after studying an image of the drawing — same costume, same features, same strokes that Kemp had examined — pronounced “it does not look like a Leonardo.” At this point Kemp turned to a Canadian forensic art expert, Peter Biro, who over the past few years has pioneered a radical new approach to authenticating pictures. He looks for and finds fingerprints impressed on the paint in the canvas which he regards as scientific evidence of the identity of the painter. His is an effort to prove objectively what has been historically subjective. Needless to say, this has shaken the priesthood of connoisseurship and the very legitimacy of the art world. However, Biro’s credibility is later challenged by others and so the work returns to other authorities with “eyes.”
The latest developments have come from David Ekserdjian, a British scholar of Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings, who suspects that the drawing is not a Leonardo. Ekserdjian reviewed Kemp’s book on the work as well as contributions by restorers, art historians and curators. Kemp argues that the drawing shows strong stylistic parallels with Leonardo’s portrait of another young woman in the Windsor Castle collection, the proportions of the head and face reflect the rules that Leonardo articulated in his notebooks, and the drawing and hatching was executed by a left handed artist — Leonardo was left handed. While these reasons suggest that the work could be by Leonardo, it might just as easily be accomplished in a forgery or by an artist seeking inspiration from a work of the past. Excerdjian writes that “Kemp seems to apologize for the fact that the portrait has been examined in such detail in his book, but actually the oddest thing about his contribution is its lack of thoroughness and rigor, above all in the almost total absence of close comparisons with unimpeachable works.” Kemp has responded that he is on to other things and not getting “involved in tit-for-tat stuff”.
So let’s look at the scorecard at this juncture. Among those who agree with Kemp are the director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, a professor emeritus of Leonardo Studies at UCLA, and the professor emeritus at the University of Florence, who is the doyenne of Italian art historians. Lining up in opposition is Ekserdjian, the Met curator of Leonardo drawings, and the director of the Albertina in Vienna. As one scholar summed it up, “Not one point in the Kemp summary is proof of the authenticity of the drawing. Leonardo was already a mature artist when this was said to have been done. He’s not going to be timid the way this drawing is. Leonardo would have built it up in light and shadow. It could have been made in the 19th century, not to deceive anyone but just as an exercise.”
Jean Marchig, a Swiss collector who consigned the drawing to Christie’s more than a decade ago, has sued the auction house alleging breach of fiduciary duty, breach of warranty and negligence. Christie’s sold the drawing as “German School early 19th century” and still not convinced it is a Leonardo, they have sought to have the suit dismissed. Peter Silverman, who describes himself as a collector specializing in Old Masters, has intimated that he is the real owner and he is planning to exhibit the drawing in Poland, Italy and Japan. He is also writing a book “The $100,000,000 Blunder: The Lost Princess by Leonardo.” One thing is for sure: Leonardo would be enormously amused by the proliferating disputes. Leonardo was never concerned with a finished product; he delighted only in working out a problem and once it was solved, he moved on to other problems. This work has been bought and sold for under $20,000 over the past 10 years. If it is really a Leonardo, the work is worth an estimated $150,000,000. Surely, all of this speculation must eventually sort itself out and we will know the truth. In the meantime, take a good long look for yourself and dare to dream.