Prado museum downgrades Leonardo’s $450m Salvator Mundi in exhibition catalogue
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief at the above headline from Martin Bailey‘s recent piece in The Art Newspaper (republished Tuesday by CNN Style without a paywall). Since when, I wondered, had Spain’s national museum become an arbiter of Leonardo attribution? If nothing else, Bailey’s report provided a shot of schadenfreude for those who had hoped that its megabucks buyer (reportedly Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) had taken a bath.
That Spain’s national museum doesn’t think it’s a Leonardo doesn’t mean that “Salvator Mundi” has been officially “downgraded.” Nevertheless, the Prado’s exclusion of “Salvator Mundi” from its list of accepted Leonardos in the catalogue for its current show—Leonardo and the copy of the Mona Lisa: New approaches to the artist’s studio practices—unleashed predictable “I told you so” pronouncements from non-experts. On his widely followed Twitter feed, art critic Jerry Saltz called the painting “a fake” and he erroneously attributed its supposed “downgrading” to Christie’s, which had proudly auctioned it, rather than to the Prado, which demoted it.
I’m amazed that, as of this writing, Saltz still hasn’t corrected his Christie’s gaffe (let alone his garbled dinosaur spelling):
In the midst of this confusion, I thought it made sense to touch base again with the person who had the most intimate knowledge of “Salvator Mundi”–-Dianne Modestini, who had painstakingly restored it from its seriously compromised state…
…to what it looked like at its 2017 presale exhibition at Christie’s, New York, where it sold for a record-busting $450.3 million (link to my live tweets from the sale), against a presale estimate “in the region of $100 million.” It has not been publicly displayed since:
Here’s what Modestini recently told me:
“The Art Newspaper” seizes every opportunity to throw mud at the painting. They seem to delight in it. The opinion of a restorer at the Prado, or any other individual, even someone with better credentials, doesn’t “downgrade” the attribution.
According to Martin Bailey’s essay, Ana González Mozo, senior technician of museums in the Prado’s Conservation Department, “proposes that another copy of ‘Salvator Mundi,’ the so-called Ganay version (1505-15) [my link, not his], is the closest to Leonardo’s lost original. Acquired by Hubert, Marquis de Ganay in 1939, it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 and is now in an anonymous private collection. Mozo argues that the skilled workshop artist who painted the Ganay ‘Salvator Mundi’ was also responsible for the Prado’s early copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ (1507-16). [See image of the Prado’s copy in this post, below.] Although the catalog [for the Prado’s current show, which Mozo organized] includes a full-page image of the Ganay ‘Salvator Mundi,’ the Cook version [the one auctioned at Christie’s] is not even illustrated.”
After twice eyeballing it during the presale exhibition at Christie’s, my own non-expert takeaway was this:
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
As for Modestini’s takeaway, she stated in her essay for Salvator Mundi Revisited (the website she established to present all the technical information and images that she had gathered from her close study and restoration of the painting) that she “was not immediately impressed,” when she had first set eyes on the damaged, inexpertly restored picture. “I knew nothing about Leonardo’s work of this period,” she admitted. But after closely comparing an image of Mona Lisa’s mouth (as published in the Louvre’s lavishly illustrated book, “Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting”) with the mouth of the painting she was examining on her easel, Modestini “realized that the ‘Salvator Mundi’ could not have been painted by anyone except Leonardo.”
Does this leave you convinced or confused? To further your bewilderment, Smithsonian Magazine published an article earlier this year, quoting from a report in The Art Newspaper by Alison Cole that discussed “new research [that] raises the possibility that Leonardo’s initial painting only featured Christ’s head and shoulders, theorizing that the figure’s hands and arms were added at a later time.” Does this suggest that Christ’s much admired “blessing hand” was not by the master?
For those craving even more complications, there’s the above-mentioned, Mozo-curated Prado exhibition (to Jan. 23). It focuses on the Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa:
And then there’s an eyebrow-raising Prado exhibition currently on view, which undermines the museum’s credibility as a champion of authenticity. Here’s a look at “Metro Meets Prado” (I kid you not), an exhibition that encourages commuters to gawk at 29 framed replicas of the museum’s masterpieces, arrayed in a Shanghai train station:
Let’s avert our eyes from this faux show and give the last words to Modestini:
When the painting [“Salvator Mundi”] emerges, scholars will have a chance to study it and form their opinions. [We can only hope that this will eventually happen.] I have not the slightest doubt about the attribution, but I don’t know whether the painting is in a Freeport or in Riyadh.
What are its current whereabouts? Let’s not even go there…
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