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On Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi — Is it Authentic?

Salvator Mundi (painted in c.1500), attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

On 15 November 2017, the painting Salvator Mundi (c.1500) broke the world record for most expensive painting ever sold, the final bid bringing the total amount to just over $450 million. The painting was previously listed as being painted by a follower of Leonardo da Vinci and was restored to a considerable degree over the course of its existence. The painting was acquired for the Louvre Abu Dhabi by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud and expected to go on view last year. The unveiling was canceled and the painting has not been seen since. Questions about the painting’s authenticity have not gone away. Unlike the Mona Lisa, Salvator Mundi is not universally recognized by Leonardo scholars as being an authentic Leonardo painting. There is a strong case to be made for this work being a genuine Leonardo, to a greater or lesser extent but the doubts of major scholars must be taken into consideration in assessing whether or not this painting could be the genuine article.

I must preface this analysis by stating that I have not seen this painting nor any Leonardo painting ‘in the flesh,’ so to speak. I have studied Leonardo, his techniques, his life, and have read widely in Leonardo studies (with particular emphasis on the works of Paolo Galluzzi, Martin Kemp, and Frank Zöllner). Walter Isaacson published his best-selling biography Leonardo just before this painting went up for auction. His book is well-written and displays an interested and informed opinion — one which, by far dwarfs that of scholars in terms of making Leonardo’s life and works accessible to the general public. However, in assessing the authenticity of a painting, it is necessary to go directly to those who have decades of experiences in the particular area of expertise. Paolo Galluzzi specializes in the history of sciences as it relates to the Italian Renaissance. His work is of marginal relevance to this particular inquiry. Martin Kemp is the English-speaking world’s greatest Leonardo scholar. He was a professor of art history at Oxford (and has since retired), has written dozens of articles and books on Leonardo da Vinci, and played an instrumental role in the authentication of La Bella Principessa (pictured below) as a work by Leonardo da Vinci.

La Bella Principessa (c.1490s), attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

Frank Zöllner is a German art historian responsible for publishing a catalogue raisonné, or complete list of accepted works, of Leonardo’s work. In a preface to a 2017 edition, he writes

“ This attribution is controversial primarily on two grounds. Firstly, the badly damaged painting had to undergo very extensive restoration, which makes its original quality extremely difficult to assess. Secondly, the Salvator Mundi in its present state exhibits a strongly developed sfumato technique that corresponds more closely to the manner of a talented Leonardo pupil active in the 1520s than to the style of the master himself. The way in which the painting was placed on the market also gave rise to concern.”

Zöllner goes on to highlight the quality of the piece while maintaining a certain and necessary degree of academic distance. He does end his description of the Salvator Mundi in his preface by highlighting the fact that it is not firmly accepted as a genuine Leonardo.

Technique and Provenance

The painting is thought to have been painted around the year 1500. The dark background is consistent with artistic trends in Milanese painting in the late-fifteenth century. Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked at the Milanese court of regent (and later duke) Ludovico Sforza from 1482–1499. Several of his paintings below are consistent with this trend:

Portrait of a Musician (1485)
Lady with an Ermine (1489–1490)
La belle ferronnière (1490–1496)

Additionally, his later painting of Saint John the Baptist (where his boyfriend Salai is believed to be the model) also contains a striking black background. This painting (below) is commonly held to be the last Leonardo painted in his lifetime.

St. John the Baptist (c.1513–1516)

I would draw the reader’s attention to the fine detail of the upward-pointing hand of this androgynous figure and compare it to the blessing hand gesture of Jesus in Salvator Mundi.

Salvator Mundi (detail)

The hand is one of the best places to draw comparisons because Salvator Mundi has faced considerable alteration through various cleanings and restorations in its history. Below is an image of the painting in 2006 or 2007 — after cleaning but before restoration:

In his entry on Salvator Mundi, Frank Zöllner (listing it as by ‘Leonardo and Workshop(?)) traces the provenance. Leonardo da Vinci died in France in 1519, only a few years after being invited to live in that country at the invitation of King Francois I. The painting came into the English Royal Collection in the seventeenth century, being documented in the estates of Charles I and Charles II (before and after Cromwell’s Commonwealth). The painting was later put up for auction and attributed to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a gifted pupil of Leonardo. It was even listed once as ‘copy after Boltraffio. The painting was sold for a minor sum in the 1950s. The painting was only recently reconsidered to be by Leonardo himself. It was only in this decade, after the restoration was complete, that the attribution to Boltraffio was removed and scholars began to consider the work a genuine Leonardo.

The quality of the painting puts it definitively in the workshop of Leonardo, but is it by the maestro himself? This is a rather hard question in which to give a simple answer. Renaissance artists were craftsmen and businessmen. The master artist ran a workshop which handled everything from making pigments to housing apprentices. The master painter would generally paint the fine details as well as oversee the work of apprentices and handle contracts. The quality of certain aspects of Salvator Mundi suggest Leonardo played a key role in the painting’s creation. I would be surprised if his was the only sixteenth century hand present on the piece. Additionally, one must consider the extent of damage and heavy hand of the restorers over the centuries.

Art critic Ben Lewis has expressed skepticism regarding the authenticity of Salvator Mundi as a genuine Leonardo painting. The Art Newspaper article covering the story goes on to say the following

“Lewis reports that five leading Leonardo scholars were shown the painting in May 2008. In his book, he records the result: “The final score from the National Gallery meeting seems to have been two Yeses, one No, and two No Comments. There was some common ground between those present, to be sure — they agreed that Leonardo had added his brush to parts of the picture, notably the orb and its foreshortened hand, the golden embroidery and, above all, the blessing hand. And the majority agreed that the face had been so badly damaged that they could no longer tell who had painted it.””

Ben Lewis wrote a book called The Last Leonardo which will be released on 18 April 2019 (in the UK, June in the US). It may yet shed necessary light on the history of the painting. To be clear, Lewis does see Leonardo as playing a part in the creation of Salvator Mundi but does not see it as a signature work by the artist. Given skepticism present in both the works of Lewis (as can be deduced from that which is currently available) and the work of Frank Zöllner, the work was in all likelihood a collaborative effort (something quite common in the Renaissance). The work is probably best listed as a product of the Leonardo workshop with a few contributions by the maestro himself.

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