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Apparition’s Condition: Will a Museum Buy Leonardo da Vinci’s Unsettling “Salvator Mundi”?

“It belongs in a museum, with all the other Leonardos.”

So said conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini at the end of a Wall Street Journal video posted early this morning, in connection with tonight’s much-anticipated and highly hyped auction at Christie’s of “Salvator Mundi.”

Here’s Christ at Christie’s, as seen by me at the Nov. 3 press preview:

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

The WSJ’s video of Modestini appeared the day after I chatted with Getty Museum director Timothy Potts at his institution’s New York press lunch, also attended by Richard Rand, associate director for collections, Jeffrey Spier, senior curator of antiquities and Jim Cuno, J. Paul Getty Trust president, at an art-themed midtown restaurant just a short walk from Christie’s.

Timothy Potts at yesterday’s Getty press lunch
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With my usual bluntness, I immediately asked Potts if he was hoping to pick up a Leonardo while in town. (You may remember the Getty’s last big splurge at a Christie’s auction in NYC.) He coyly replied (as I expected) that if he were hoping to buy that painting, he wouldn’t tell me. Then he paused and realized he should have added a corollary: If he wasn’t planning to bid, he wouldn’t tell me that either, he said.

If the latter were true, I replied, he probably would have just said so.

Or maybe not: Time will tell. If the Getty (or another museum) buys the painting, that may be announced tonight after the sale, which begins at 7 p.m. and can be watched live on Christie’s website or its Facebook page. This incongruous offering, in what is otherwise a Post-War and Contemporary Art sale, comes early: It’s Lot 9, right after Vija Celmins‘ “Lead Sea #2.”

The big question is: Is it of museum quality?

The easy answer is: How could a Leonardo not belong in a museum, assuming that you agree with what is described as the “unusually uniform scholarly consensus” about its attribution?

That said, my own non-specialist reaction upon encountering it was so conflicted that I needed a second look (which I arranged yesterday) to test my initial impressions. Surprisingly, I was able to lean in a bit closer during the general public’s viewing than I could during the press view. (Perhaps Christie’s had been trying to keep the equipment-wielding cameramen at bay.) The public was allowed to enter the inner sanctum in small groups, after standing for about an hour in a line that extended down the block (as I documented in this tweeted video).

Both times when I gazed at this hazy apparition of Jesus, I was initially put off by the blurriness of the face, which made it vexingly hard to read. Leonardo is known for his sfumato technique—the softening and blending of contours—but this indistinctness seemed to me excessive and, on the face, pervasive: I suspected it related, at least in part, to the harsh treatment that Luke Syson, now at the Metropolitan Museum, had referred to in the catalogue of the National Gallery, London, for his 2011-12 exhibition there—Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

As I previously noted here (before I had eyeballed the painting), Syson wrote that “Salvator Mundi” had long ago been “aggressively over-cleaned, with some abrasion of the whole picture surface and especially in the face [emphasis added] and hair of Christ. Christ’s blessing hand was the least altered but his head had been almost entirely reinvented.”

Here, in a screenshot from Christie’s online catalogue devoted to the painting, is how it appeared after cleaning but before its comprehensive restoration by Modestini, who is senior research fellow and conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and widow of famed old masters restorer Mario Modestini:

Image From Christie’s online catalogue (70), showing “Salvator Mundi’s” losses before restoration

As alarming as it looks, major losses are common in centuries-old paintings, as seen in this Cleveland Museum Caravaggio, which I viewed while it was undergoing restoration.

Rather than indulging in speculation, I asked Modestini directly: Was the blurriness that I perceived at Christie’s caused by abrasion?

Here’s her response:

I and others, including [Leonardo expert] Martin Kemp, have noted that, in comparison to the blessing hand, the face was deliberately painted slightly out of focus [emphasis added], like a photographer using a high “f” stop. This serves to create distance between the planes. The image, which has not been cut down, is telescopic and if I knew more technical things about lenses and focal lengths I would be able to explain the optics. Michelangelo later adopted this device for the lunettes in the Sistine ceiling.

I’m still not entirely convinced, but I’ll have defer to the experts, who say that the exquisitely rendered blessing hand—the most Leonardo-esque part of the painting—is in sharper focus than the face because it is closer to the viewer. Not coincidentally, it is also the most intact part of the original painting surface.

For me, the entirely subjective takeaway was that after had I stood and stared for a while at the face, however blurry, it mesmerized me, even though (as Modestini acknowledged) the eyes after restoration were “of slightly different size.” I didn’t perceive any Mona Lisa-like smile that other commentators have mentioned. Instead, I saw a tension between the tight-lipped mouth and eyes of infinite comprehension and compassion.

That hypnotic force is what overcame my skepticism, making me a convert to the painting (not the faith).

Despite the doubters (and notwithstanding the painting’s unsavory recent history as the subject of a legal battle), it’s expected to sell: The catalogue says that Christie’s has “a direct financial guarantee interest” in it, which is “backed by a third party’s irrevocable bid.”

This means that even if there’s scant interest in the room or on the phones, a buyer has already been lined up who, if necessary, will save “Salvator Mundi.”

an ArtsJournal blog