The New Exchange

You are not logged in. Would you like to login or register?

12/16/2016 7:06 am  #1

Art Detective

Authenticating a discovered item

Fake or fortune: is this lost Leonardo da Vinci drawing the real deal?

Miracles do occur. People walk into auction houses with an old bit of art that has been in the attic for centuries and it turns out to be a masterpiece. It has just happened, apparently.

A drawing of Saint Sebastian that a French doctor brought to the Paris auction house Tajan is now thought to be a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci. The auctioneer has the backing of Carmen C Bambach of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the world’s most astute curators of Leonardo, in making this sensational claim. If they are right, this is an amazing find – a new drawing by one of the greatest geniuses in history. So are they?

All too many “sensational” artistic discoveries turn out to be wishful thinking or worse. The recent supposed find of a cache of lost drawings by Vincent van Gogh elicited a trenchant dismissal by the Van Gogh Museum and justified ridicule. The claim earlier this year that a painting found near Toulouse is an original work by Caravaggio is controversial to say the least. Leonardo is no stranger to disputed authentications. A portrait known as La Bella Principessa has been put forward as an original Leonardo by the British art historian Martin Kemp. It is however widely scorned as nothing of the kind.

So what makes the difference between fake and fortune (the Sebastian sketch is now valued at £12.6m) when it comes to Leonardo? The thing that immediately looks authentic in this drawing is the way blobs of ink have gathered on the figure’s raised arm and also to form his dark, shadowy belly button. That pooling of ink is so Leonardo. To me, that’s a massive clue. The colour of the ink is exactly the shade you would expect, and even more typical is the creative freedom and intellectual restlessness of the way the body has been drawn and redrawn, with it legs shown in alternative positions in the same drawing, just as Leonardo depicts a horse with multiple legs in a drawing in the Royal Collection.

It would take not just a forger of genius but a whole panel of art historians to create a fake this subtle
The more you look, the more signs of Leonardo’s genius appear. The face is dreamy and expressive in a way that evokes his young men, but even more striking is the sensual, simple suggestion of eyes and mouth with the most delicate of graphic marks. Then look at the landscape. Hints of hills resemble the mountain backgrounds he loved to draw and paint. The hills even have the almost Chinese sugar-loaf effect found in such paintings as The Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo advised artists to stare at random stains on a wall to get ideas for landscapes: the sketching out of a landscape here is strongly reminiscent of that surrealistic method.

There is a frame loosely sketched around the image, which suggests this is not just a random drawing but a design for a lost or never-completed painting of Saint Sebastian. Another sketch for this planned work by Leonardo also survives.

This image of a tied-up naked youth might make you think of another artist. It surely resembles Michelangelo’s sculpture The Rebellious Slave in the Louvre. In fact, someone in the past has written the name “Michelange”, French for Michelangelo, on it. Yet the style of this drawing has nothing in common with Michelangelo. It is much more Leonardo-like.

If you think about it, this is a good clue. A forger would surely want to promote it as a Leonardo. In fact, the Michelangelo attribution suggests a perfectly honest mistaken identity rather than any attempt at forgery. Michelangelo and Leonardo knew and influenced each other.

Turn over the sheet and the case is pretty much closed. The reverse is covered with scientific diagrams and notes in Leonardo’s distinctive script. So, it’s a beautiful drawing full of Leonardo’s unique touches on a sheet whose other side is an absolutely classic Leonardo notebook page.

This is obviously the real thing. How wonderful. The beauty of it is that the truth is so clear and apparent. It would take not just a forger of genius but a whole panel of art historians to create a fake this subtle. This is a Leonardo – because it looks like one.

By contrast, La Bella Principessa, also claimed as a Leonardo, does not have any of his typical stylistic brilliances. This should be a warning against obscuring the obvious. Today’s arsenal of supposedly scientific tests can create a completely false idea that art can be objectively analysed. In reality, our eyes and responses are the measure of great art and the best way to authenticate it it is by a sensitivity to the way artists draw and paint, which we can all learn by looking at art. This drawing has that special magic that all true drawings by Leonardo possess. It gets us close to one of the most marvellous minds that ever existed.

 The reverse of the drawing, apparently showing a page from da Vinci’s notebooks. Photograph: Tajan, France

Last edited by Goose (12/16/2016 7:07 am)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

Board footera


Powered by Boardhost. Create a Free Forum