The myriad Mona Lisas

How the multiple Mona Lisa copies, and their prices, testify to the longstanding fame of the painting and its mystique

On Art

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Mona Lisa is now an immovable object. The last time the painting left the Louvre was in 1974 when it was loaned to Russia and Japan and it will probably never travel again. Before that, it had left France just twice since Leonardo brought it in his baggage when he moved to the Loire valley in 1516 to see out the last years of his life as the guest of Francis I.

An antiques dealer made the sensational claim that the painting the public were busily swooning over was a fake

In 1963, the painting travelled to America in a deal brokered by Jacqueline Kennedy and André Malraux, the French minister of culture. Despite a furore at home about potential damage, the painting crossed the Atlantic on board the SS France.

The White House had assured the French government that the picture would receive the same level of Secret Service protection as JFK himself, so it was accompanied into New York harbour by the US Coast Guard and when it was displayed in Washington it was flanked by two marines, while in New York detectives circulated the room. When the Mona Lisa returned to France three months later she had been seen by more than one million Americans.

Her American sojourn was not without incident, however. Half way through the trip, an antiques dealer named Raymond Hekking made the sensational claim that the painting the American public were busily swooning over was a fake. The real painting, he said, was in his possession and he cited as evidence the only other time the Mona Lisa had left French soil.

This occurred in 1911 when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian working at the Louvre, stole the painting and took it to Florence. The painting wasn’t returned until 1913 and it was during its missing years, claimed Hekking, that the real painting was swapped for a fake that now hung on the Louvre’s walls. The original, he said had somehow ended up in Nice, where he had bought it from a dealer in the early-1950s for about £3.

Hekking was an astute publicist and he invited journalists and television crews to his home in Grasse to examine the picture and bombarded prominent Renaissance connoisseurs with supposed proof of its status. He also arranged for Pathé to make a film, Mona Lisa Sensation, about the “discovery”.

Hekking, who died in 1977, spent the rest of his life trying to prove his claims but they were comprehensively debunked. His painting is now ascribed to an anonymous Italian follower of Leonardo of the early seventeenth century, more than a century after Leonardo applied the first dabs of paint. The fuss around the painting had given it a degree of fame, so when the Hekking Mona Lisa came up for auction in June at Christie’s in Paris it carried a not inconsiderable estimate of €200,000-€300,000. When the hammer fell, however, it had made €2.9 million.

The price is nothing short of bonkers. What the anonymous “European collector” who bought it has got for his millions is an at best adequate and truncated version of the original (its side columns are missing). It is not good enough to be by the hand of a significant painter and not a single reputable Leonardo scholar links it with Leonardo himself. Even the painting’s celebrity wouldn’t seem to warrant such a sum and €2.9 million is an awful lot for some reflected glory.

What the paintings and prices both testify to is the longstanding fame of the painting and its mystique

It is not as if copies of the Mona Lisa are in short supply either. An exhibition at the Louvre in 1952 listed more than 50 extant versions. In 2019 alone three copies came up for sale: one, attributed to the young Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), went for €162,500; another seventeenth century version went for €552,500; the third, again seventeenth century, went for a whopping $1,695,000.

What the paintings and prices both testify to is the longstanding fame of the painting and its mystique. These days authenticity is usually prized above all things (which is why a genuine Leonardo silverpoint drawing of a bear, offered this month at Christie’s London, fetched a record £8.8 million) but in the pre-Romantic age copies were seen as barely inferior to the original work.

The earliest copy of all, dated 1503-1516, was painted in Leonardo’s studio by a pupil, probably either Salaì or Francesco Melzi, as work progressed simultaneously but haltingly on the original. Now in the Prado in Madrid, it is based on the same original drawing as the Mona Lisa and is painted on Leonardo’s favoured walnut panels using his high-quality pigments. Its vivid colours, after restoration in 2012, give an idea of what the degraded original must have looked like when fresh.

Another contemporary workshop version, known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa, now owned by a group of investors based in Geneva, shows a slightly younger woman than the Louvre portrait and possibly includes touches from Leonardo’s own hand.

And he may also have contributed to the most intriguing of all the alternative Mona Lisas, that held by the Musée Condé in Chantilly. It is a preparatory drawing for a painting, made in charcoal c1513-1516 (when Leonardo may still have been at work on the original), and shows a female sitter similar to Mona Lisa and in the same pose. This time, however, she is naked. Given her age, mystery and closeness to Leonardo, she really would have been worth €2.9 million.

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