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Salvaging “Salvator Mundi”: Inside Look at “Extensive Restoration” of Leonardo at Christie’s

Without question,” Christie’s confidently declared last week, Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Salvator Mundi” (being auctioned on Nov. 15 in New York) is “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century.”

Really? With 83 years still remaining in this century, we’re entitled to pose a few questions. First off: Might this century have other extraordinary rediscoveries that are yet to come? Even Leonardo seems to have new contenders for his canon emerging every few years, although they usually don’t gain the overwhelming expert consensus of true believers that has embraced “Salvator Mundi.”

Of more pressing importance: How great is the “greatest artistic rediscovery” of the last 17 years (if not the 21st century)?

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” c. 1500
Presale estimate: in the region of $100 million

After the painting’s meet-the-press moment last week at Christie’s, New York, it was whisked away on a tour intended to drum up interest in Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. Unable to attend the press preview, I’ll have to await its return to see it firsthand.

But written assessments of Jesus’ condition indicate that what we’ll see at the auction house is a far cry from what Leonardo saw on the easel. Some degradation is inherent in any 500-year-old. But this one has experienced some particularly rough treatment. To give it a rejuvenating makeover, a lot of work needed to be done.

Not that you’d know that from what Christie’s has written in about the painting’s state of preservation:

Both of Christ’s hands, the exquisitely rendered curls of his hair, the orb, and much of his drapery are in fact remarkably well preserved and close to their original state.

So far, so good. But the elephant not in the room is the condition of the most crucial part of the composition—Jesus’ face.

Below is an excerpt from the entry for “Salvator Mundi” in the catalogue of the National Gallery, London, for its 2011-12 exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. That comprehensive show was the painting’s coming-out party as an authentic Leonardo:

In 1913 Tancred Borenius catalogued it as a “free copy after Boltraffio,” twice removed therefore from Leonardo. In 1958 it was sold from the [Sir Francis] Cook collection, still as a copy after Boltraffio. The low esteem in which it was held is easy to explain: By the time it came into Francis Cook’s possession it had been very considerably overpainted. Christ’s blessing hand was the least altered but his head had been almost entirely reinvented….

The reasons for such abundant overpaint are also clear. Though both Christ’s hands are well preserved, elsewhere the picture has suffered. Sometime in the past the panel split in two, causing paint losses along the length of the crack. It has also been aggressively over-cleaned, with some abrasion of the whole picture surface and especially in the face and hair of Christ. [Emphases added.]

If previous restorers believed the head needed to be “almost entirely reinvented,” then we may have strayed a long way from the artist’s vision and from Jesus’ original gaze, unless the cleaning and the removal of the overpaint allowed its respected conservator—Dianne Dwyer Modestini—to make reliable, informed guesses about Leonardo’s intentions.

Dianne Dwyer Modestini

A senior research fellow and conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, Modestini published a 13-page article, “Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi Rediscovered,” 2014, in which she detailed her thought processes and meticulous ministrations to bring the deadened painting back to life in what Christie’s calls “an extensive restoration.” (I don’t have a link to Modestini’s article, but it can be found in “Leonardo da Vinci’s Technical Practice: Paintings, Drawings and Influence,” February 2014, which can be ordered here.)

Modestini’s report includes photos of the painting’s losses as revealed by the painstaking removal of as much as possible of previous botched “restorations.” The owner of those photos, Salvator Mundi LLC, licensed them for exclusive use by Christie’s during the period surrounding the auction. I am awaiting the auction house’s answer to my request for permission to reproduce two of those images.

In the meantime, below are two excerpts from the article by Modestini, widow of the late, renowned old masters restorer Mario Modestini, to whom she showed “Salvator Mundi,” before cleaning and restoration, when he was 98 years old. He then deemed it to be “by a very great artist, a generation after Leonardo.”

This is Dianne’s inside account of her work on the rediscovered Leonardo, in which she candidly discusses the difficult judgment calls that old-masters conservators often must make:

Since both eyes have been abraded, the left one to a greater degree than the right, the ambiguity between abrasion and highlight made the restoration extremely difficult and I redid it numerous times. As little as possible was done to the left eye. No attempt was made, for example, to emphasize the pupil, which is reasonably well preserved in the right eye. Carefully following the remnants of [the] original, which contain a line of drawing to place the lower lid, resulted in eyes of slightly different size; the left is smaller than the right. Imposing a more logical or definite shape caused the eyes to completely change character….

Fortunately, apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire layer structure, including the final scumbles and glazes. The passages have not suffered from abrasion; if they had I wouldn’t have been able to reconstruct the losses.

When I asked Christie’s for a copy of its own condition report, which will be made publicly available, the auction house’s spokesperson told me this:

It’s a bit too early to send through the report, but we will have one by the time that the catalogue comes out in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, here’s what I can tell you about the condition: “Salvator Mundi” is a 500-year-old painting and like most of that age, it has endured some wear and tear over the centuries. Significant areas remain in fine condition and many of the most important elements of the picture—the blessing hand, the orb, Christ’s vestments, the curls in his hair—are remarkably intact.

Conspicuously unmentioned: the facial features.

Among discerning old masters collectors, condition counts. That brings me to another question raised by last week’s launch: Why is Leonardo crashing the evening sale of Post-war and Contemporary Art, rather than congenially consorting with his fellow old masters?

It’s a surprising gambit, which I’ll parse in a future post.

A similar break with convention is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art—a pairing (to Jan. 1) of a Leonardo drawing with a work by Charles White (in an “Artist’s Choice” display curated by David Hammons). It seems that Leonardo/contemporary-art pairings are becoming “a thing.”

At MoMA, it seems to be all about the drapery:

Charles White, “Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man),” 1973, Museum of Modern Art
©2017 The Charles White Archives

Leonardo da Vinci, “Drapery of a Kneeling Figure, c. 1491–94, Royal Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth II
Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

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