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Is This An Early 'Mona Lisa?'

Sep 27, 2012
Originally published on September 28, 2012 2:41 pm

The Zurich-based Mona Lisa Foundation said today that it has evidence that a painting that first came to light in the late 1800s is an early "Mona Lisa" also done by Leonard Da Vinci.

Known as the "Isleworth Mona Lisa," the painting is a "portrait of a young woman with an enigmatic smile" much like the famous work of art in The Louvre, as The Associated Press writes. The foundation, which was created for the specific purpose of researching the history of the "early Mona Lisa," says it believes the painting was created 11 or 12 years before the more famous likeness. Its existence first became known when it "turned up in the [Isleworth] home of an English nobleman in the late 1800s," the AP says.

Among the foundation's evidence:

-- "Historical accounts ... [that] point to two distinct and different portraits, one being of the young Mona Lisa, and the second to a Florentine woman, or La Gioconda."

-- "Scientific and physical examinations" that indicate the "earlier" painting "aligns perfectly with the 'Golden Ratio,' " — which appears throughout Leonardo's art — and that indicate the painting "was most likely executed at the beginning of the 16th Century." [That claim would seem to conflict with the idea that the earlier painting was done 11 or 12 years before the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, which authorities say was painted between 1503 and 1506. The artist, by the way, died in 1519.]

The foundation's claims aren't impressing some skeptics. According to the AP:

"Martin Kemp, an Oxford University professor and Leonardo expert, wrote in an e-mail that 'the reliable primary evidence provides no basis for thinking that there was an earlier portrait of Lisa del Giocondo' — referring to the subject of the painting that's known as the Mona Lisa in English and La Joconde in French.

"Kemp questioned the 'debatable interpretations' of source material about the Isleworth painting, and said that scientific analysis cannot categorically deny that Da Vinci didn't paint it. However, he added: 'The infrared reflectography and X-ray points very strongly to its not being by Leonardo.' "

The foundation has much more about what it says it has found in this video.

Update at 9:30 a.m. ET, Sept. 28: As you hopefully can see at the top, we've added Thursday's All Things Considered report from NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Today in Geneva, Switzerland, a painting was unveiled - a painting of a familiar face. A group called the Mona Lisa Foundation, claims Da Vinci made this portrait years before the famous work that now hangs in the Louvre. NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In the digital image of this so-called "Earlier Mona Lisa," she looks like the same person. Her hands are folded the same way; her hair and dress are similar; and she's got that slight smile.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The face has been painted by Leonardo. No doubt of this at all. It is most beautiful.

BLAIR: That narration is from a video made by the Mona Lisa Foundation, a Zurich-based company formed by art auctioneer David Feldman and Markus Frey, a lawyer and investment banker. The foundation was created to prove there were two Mona Lisas. Frey spoke at today's unveiling.

MARKUS FREY: The ultimate goal of our endeavors: to give that stunning, earlier version the place in art history which it deserves.

BLAIR: The painting is named the "Isleworth Mona Lisa," after the English town where art dealer and collector Hugh Blaker had a studio. The story goes that he bought the painting in 1913, and Henry Pulitzer bought it in the 1960s. When he died, he gave the painting to a business partner, who entrusted it to David Feldman. This year, the Mona Lisa Foundation released a 300-page book and this video, laying out its evidence that this is the first version of Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Over the next 12 years, the painting underwent every test, from gamma spectroscopy to infrared reflectography and multispectral digitization.

BLAIR: But there is one important skeptic: Martin Kemp, professor of history of art, at Oxford University. He says - among other things - the foundation's scientific tests don't reveal anything that resembles Da Vinci's technique.

MARTIN KEMP: When Leonardo painted pictures, as we know from the scientific examination of them, he was never happy. He was always pushing contours around, altering bits, painting out bits, sort of adding other bits; and these technical examinations are boring and inert. And that's the last thing you expect of Leonardo technical examinations.

BLAIR: But Kemp does believe Da Vinci might have started this painting.

KEMP: There's good evidence that Leonardo began a painting in 1503, never really quite finished it; certainly, never handed it over to the patrons. It ended up in the hands of a pupil. It then passed from the pupil into the French royal collection, and that's the picture we've got.

BLAIR: Either way, the Mona Lisa Foundation is making a big push to prove this is Da Vinci's earlier "Mona Lisa." It's not exactly clear who owns this painting. But if they're right, Kemp says the sums of money it could fetch, are awesome.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.