“The Last da Vinci” – that is how Christie’s advertised the painting of Christ Salvator Mundi, sold on November 2017 and eventually placed in the collection of Abu Dhabi Louvre. Indeed, there are not many art-pieces that can be ascribed to Leonardo himself, but there is always a chance that something may occur, as some unknown originals may still be hidden under not yet removed overpainting. In case of the Abu Dhabi Salvator, comparison of the photos taken ca. 1900 and after recent restoration proves that conservators are able to perform miracles… however, we should remember that in case of this Salvator it was more than just one restoration (and the most recent seems to have been completed just before the sale, which is a little bit concerning).
There are quite many controversies around that painting. It is true that after the restoration Salvator seems to look like Leonardo’s works, especially regarding a very gentle chiaroscuro, called sfumato.
Nevertheless, we should not forget that one of the most important aspects of the research on the authenticity of the Old Masters’ artworks is establishing the provenance of the art-piece. In this case, unfortunately, it did not go well.
First of all, it has been assumed that Leonardo painted Salvator Mundi which did not survive, and that assumption was based on the fact that there are quite many copies after the presumed lost original. Also, there is an information in written sources that king Charles I of England owned a painting of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci.
That painting from the collection of king Charles I, sold in 1651, has been described as A peece of Christ done by Leonardo’ , and later in a description of royal collection in Whitehall in 1666 we have another note: ‘Leonard De Vince O.r Savio.r w.th a gloabe in one hand & holding up y.e other’. Additionally, there is a print by Wenceslaus Hollar (of 1650), describing reproduced picture as by Leonardo da Vinci.
Based on information mentioned above, the experts have proposed rather a speculative hypothesis about the painting’s history: knowing that Leonardo da Vinci worked for the king of France, and considering the fact that wife of Charles I was Henrietta Maria, French princess, they proposed that the painting may have been commissioned by the French court and came to England in the 17th century with the king’s fiancee. As a result, hypothetical provenance of the painting has been described as following: probably commissioned by Louis XII and his wife Anne of Bretagne, possibly by descend passed to Henrietta Maria, who may have taken the it to England when she married Charles I. And that is how “fake news” are created in the art world: you just need to drop all the “possiblies” and “may haves” and you get the impression that the painting has good and solid provenance. Meanwhile, this is just a speculation; there is no proof that the painting was commissioned by Louis XII in the first place and no evidence that it may indeed have belonged to Henrietta Maria.
Additionally, the whole issue has just got more complicated because of a new discovery: Jeremy Wood wrote about it in his article for the 80th volume of the Walpole Society publication (“Buying and Selling Art in Venice, London and Antwerp: The Collection of Bartolomeo della Nave and the Dealings of James, Third Marquis of Hamilton, Anthony Van Dyck, and Jan and Jacob Van Veerle, c. 1637-52”): apparently there is hitherto unknown note about a painting of Christ holding globe by Leonardo da Vinci (‘Christ with a globe in his hande done by Leonardus Vinsett’) being in 1638-1641 in the estate in Chelsea, belonging to James the third marquis and later duke of Hamilton. So that means that either in England at that time there were two similar paintings by da Vinci (one in the collection of the king, brought from France by the queen, and the other in the Hamilton collection), or the duke of Hamilton owned the painting that later was acquired by the king (but in that case the painting would not be brought to England by the queen). Anyway, the painting subsequently “disappeared”, and in fact its certain provenance starts as late as in ca. 1900, when Sir John Charles Robinson (1824-1913) sold it as by Bernardino Luini. Earlier, in 1763, there was a painting sold of the collection of Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, described as ‘L. Da. Vinci A head of our Saviour’ (London, 24 February 1763, lot 53), but was that Salvator Mundi or something else?
As if that was not enough, we lack evidence that Leonardo da Vinci painted Salvator Mundi in the first place. Da Vinci’s contemporaries, who wrote about his other paintings, did not mention Salvator Mundi! The inventories of the 17th century collections, just as a print dating back to mid-seventeenth century, may simply have given a wrong attribution. A painting recorded in the 17th century collection of a duke or a king may have been misattributed; by the way, Old Masters have been even forged back then (for example, Dürer’s prints were forged even by the artist’s contemporaries!) and some wealthy collectors may have simply been deceived by dishonest art-dealers. It may also have been an honest mistake; the misattributions occurred in case of prints, especially the ones that reproduced paintings created 100 or 200 years earlier. For example, there is a Portrait of Young Man in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (after 1630), nowadays attributed to Jan Cossiers, which have been engraved in 1813 by James Fittler and inscribed as by Rubens. So we can not trust the prints entirely.
But let us assume that we can ignore the lack of the 16th century sources about that painting and so let’s accept that there was a Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci in England in the 17th century. If so, and if that was the painting engraved by Hollar, then unfortunately it seems that it was not the Abu Dhabi picture!
There are too many details different when we compare the print and the painting. Apart from the head (beard, mustache, proportions!) we can actually focus on a crystal sphere. In the print that part simply looks better: the arrangement of the fingers (especially the thumb) is more natural, the draperies of clothes and a palm seen through the glass are depicted more skillfully. Also, the engraved light on the globe looks more like a reflection of a window, traditional for the Netherlandish art of the 15th century (and bearing a symbolic meaning), while the globe in the painting is only awkwardly decorated with some random light-spots. Even if we assume that Leonardo simply did not care about proper execution of the globe (or, as some scholars suggest, chose not to focus viewers’ attention on that part), why would it be “fixed” in a later engraving? It rather looks like the print was based on a different (perhaps better?) version of the painting.
The other candidate to have been a source of inspiration for the print is Salvator Mundi from the Paris collection of Marquis de Ganay (today in the Diocesan Museum in Naples, reproduced below), which also has no certain provenance, but is known to have been in the 19th century in the Poor Claires’ convent in Nantes. By the way, some of the Wikipedia articles on the Leonardo’s Salvator painting (for example a Polish version) confuse those two paintings and mix information about Naples and Abu Dhabi pictures as if it was all about one art-piece.
So, is the Abu Dhabi Salvator indeed the lost original by Leonardo da Vinci? Or perhaps is it just one of the copies created in da Vinci’s workshop, perhaps by one of his students? It is worth to mention that Fra Pietro da Novellara, who visited Leonardo’s studio in April 1501, noted that the master no longer paints himself, but rather has his students make copies and only add some touches to them from time to time. In this situation, is it at all sensible to debate on the authorship in case of such a painting as discussed Salvator Mundi?
Attribution does not change the artistic value of the painting – but, of course, it changes the market value. In any case, is this painting really worth as much as 450 million dollars? Well, probably not. Interestingly, British media revealed that the price was a result of a kind of bidding mistake: apparently two Saudi princes bid against each other, each of them assuming that the other comes from Qatar (and because of that trying not to let him win). If that was the case than the price does not reflect the art-piece’s artistic value after all.
I wrote that post based mainly on excellent articles by Michael Dayley at ArtWatch UK – you will find much more information there. I also invite you to check out my previous posts: “Unoriginal” Leonardo? – part one and Other Mona Lisas.